Shane Jacobson has big heels to fill in Hairspray

When Hairspray the Musical arrives at the Festival Theatre this month, audiences will see a different side to actor and television personality Shane Jacobson, who is best known for his portrayal of a blokey plumber.

Dec 09, 2022, updated Dec 09, 2022
Shane Jacobson and Todd McKenney in 'Hairspray the Musical'. Photo: Jeff Busby

Shane Jacobson and Todd McKenney in 'Hairspray the Musical'. Photo: Jeff Busby

Instead of overalls, Jacobson is donning a dress, high heels and wig as the beloved housewife Edna Turnblad in the Broadway production of Hairspray currently touring Australia.

The musical – which can trace its lineage back to the 1988 John Waters film – is set in Baltimore, Maryland, and follows the journey of teenager Tracy Turnblad, who fulfils her dream of being cast on a popular youth dancing television show while at the same time battling blatant discrimination in 1960s America.

Jacobson, who has also recently been part of the judging panel on the latest series of Australia’s Got Talent, plays Tracy’s mum, a role embodied by actor and drag queen Divine in the original movie and then by John Travolta in the 2007 remake.

While the Aussie performer may still be best known for playing a portaloo plumber in Kenny in 2006, his performance repertoire extends well beyond the Aussie battler. He won a Helpmann Award in 2008 for his performance in Guys and Dolls, and has also performed in stage shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mother & Son and Shane Warne the Musical.

“To some, it may seem like this is a new endeavour for me, but I grew up on stage – it’s my home,” he tells InReview, adding that he did 13 years of amateur theatre in his youth.

“I’ve enjoyed stepping into Edna Turnblad’s shoes, or rather her high heels. I consider myself a character actor and I love the idea that people would be surprised to see the guy who did Kenny now doing Edna.

“I love those challenges, and as an actor, that’s what you hope for.”

Todd McKenney, Asabi Goodman, Mackenzie Dunn, Shane Jacobson and Carmel Rodrigues in Hairspray. Photo: Jeff Busby

Director Jack O’Brien (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) lead the original Broadway creative team presenting Hairspray the Musical, whose cast also includes Todd McKenney as Wilbur Turnblad, Rhonda Burchmore as Velma Von Tussle, Rob Mills as Corny Collins, Asabi Goodman as Motormouth Maybelle, and Carmel Rodrigues as Tracy Turnblad.

The show will open at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide on December 27 after a Melbourne season during which Jacobson says he has been blown away by support from audiences.

“We’ve been rehearsing the show for five months now, and performing it in Melbourne for three months,” he says. “It’s been incredible… my wife and kids came to the show five times – they’ve never watched anything five times.

“I even have a mate from another passion and part of my life, motor racing, who came and said he didn’t think he would like musical theatre, but he loved it.”

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The father of four says while the role of Edna Turnblad has traditionally been played by a man, his portrayal is not actually drag; rather, the audience is meant to view the character as a woman.

“Somebody at the Melbourne shows did actually tell me they thought I was a woman, which was fantastic – my dream is for people to think I’m a woman on stage.

“I really want people to see me as the loving mother figure, not as me.”

The cast of the 2022 production of Hairspray. Photo: supplied

To become Edna – who has to overcome her own insecurities to help daughter Tracy achieve her dream – Jacobson must spend an hour being transformed by make-up professionals.

“I end up doing eight hours a week getting ready and two hours getting un-readied,” he says. “I definitely get out of it a lot faster than I get into it all.”

The musical takes a critical look at the racial discrimination in the United States, with Tracy and her friends pushing for racial integration on the fictional Corny Collins Show. While Hairspray is set in the 1960s, Jacobson believes the themes still resonate.

“It’s relevant in some ways, even more so for young people; that’s never going to get old. For kids now, acceptance and inclusion is something we always need to be striving for.

“It’s also about positive body image – which is very much at the forefront of people’s minds today.”

Not one to slow down, Jacobson is already planning to start his next project following Hairspray: narrating a documentary about the rivalry between Ford and Holden in Australian car manufacturing and car culture.

Hairspray will open at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide on December 27 for a season that will continue throughout January, after which the production heads to Sydney. 

Topics: musicals
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