Musical review: Hairspray

In eye-popping celebration of its 20th anniversary, the musical Hairspray comes to the Festival Theatre, treating audiences to a throwback of beehives on black and white television screens and a whole lot of good-hearted sass.

Jan 03, 2023, updated Jan 03, 2023

In Baltimore, Maryland, 1962, positively perky Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins Show, and though she’s fat shamed and deterred by those in power, she heeds the words of Motormouth Maybelle: ‘You can’t let weight restrict your fate.’

Not only does Tracy rise above the body-image barrier and become a fan favourite on the dance floor, her wishing that the black and white kids could dance together leads to a takedown of segregation.

It’s a winding road from Hairspray’s start to present-day Adelaide, beginning with the 1988 film by underground, independent writer/director John Waters, whose niche style is campy, exaggerated and filled with fun-fuelled shock.

After critical, though not commercial, success, the film was adapted for the stage by Thomas Meehan, who’d written the books for Annie and The Producers. In a process involving consultation with Waters, Meehan’s adaption was one that honoured the original film but also stood on its own. With Rob Marshall as director/choreographer, Hairspray, the 2002 Broadway smash received 13 Tony nominations, winning a total of 8 awards including Best Musical. The show had a massive run of 2,642 performances.

When the film adaption of the musical Hairspray – this time written by Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire) and directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner) – opened in 2007, it broke the record for the biggest opening weekend of any musical movie. Audiences adored John Travolta in his first musical since Grease; his role as Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, earned him a nomination for a Golden Globe.

The success of every adaptation (Waters’ original may not have won awards or broken sales records, but it’s a cult classic) is multifaceted, and this production, toasting the 20th anniversary of the first stage production, follows suite. Evidenced in the opening scene, as Tracy sings ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ in an upright 2-D bed positioned so we’re like a giant camera looking down at her. The set is quirky and original, with cartoonish angles creating a 3-D effect. The lights that act as backdrop are retro in a jazzy, swinging, pop-inspired way, and the costumes are as bright as the wigs are big. The songs are reminiscent of a Motown rhythm and blues (‘It Takes Two’, ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’), peppered with laugh-out-loud lyrics (‘I Can Hear the Bells’, (You’re) Timeless to Me’), and the choreography is snappy and energetic.

The half-Australian / half-American cast is bold and riddled with talent. Carmel Rodrigues (semi-finalist on season 5 of Australia’s The Voice) nails the role of Tracy Turnblad, her presence as infectious as Waters’ then-unknown Ricki Lake in the original role. There are so many standout performances in the show – including Shane Jacobson (star of Kenny and host of Little Big Shots) as the beloved Edna Turnblad, and Todd McKenney (best known as a judge on Australia’s Dancing with the Stars) as Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad – but little-known American actor, singer and dancer Javon King as Seaweed J Stubbs is particularly deserving of praise.

Hairspray dazzles, and as if the dynamism in the room during the performance wasn’t enough, you might find yourself dancing in the aisles at the end of the performance. It’s that kind of show; it’s completely contagious.

Hairspray is playing at the Festival Centre until 28 January.

Topics: musicals
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