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Hairspray

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. The cast of Hairspray, in character, stand around a set piece from the 'corny collins' show
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  2. Rhonda Birchmore, in character, sits on a table with four teenage boys surrounding her
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  3. "The Turnblatts" dance together, with additional cast looking on from the back of the set
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Hairspray was rewarded with a standing ovation on opening night – but for all its excellent points, it suffered by prioritising a few familiar names

There are inevitable creative tensions that arise when adapting a movie into a musical; to take a much-loved, cult flick and turn it into a legitimate singing, dancing hit live on stage is fraught with danger. Do you stay true to the source text? Do you take the original story and mould it into something unique?

We've seen a lot of these such adaptations in Melbourne of late – versions of both Bring It On and Cruel Intentions have hit our stages in the past year alone – but Hairspray is arguably of a different calibre. And if the opening number – the irrepressibly infectious ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ – isn’t the proof in the pudding from the first few seconds of the production, then we clearly have different tastes in dessert.

Based on the original cult 1988 movie of the same name – no, not the one with Amanda Bynes, John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer, which came after the musical adaption – Hairspray delivered a young Ricki Lake her breakout moment, and featured Debbie Harry as the evil, racist mom to boot. Originally, the movie (which, by the way, was not a musical) saw average box office earnings before it evolved into a cult classic thanks to the fertile ground of the humble video store. 14 years later, the musical opened on Broadway, honouring the tradition of casting a male actor in the Edna Turnblad role to honour legendary drag performer Divine, who played Tracy’s mother in the original movie.

The Broadway musical adaption, despite the minor (and to be honest, slightly inferior) adjustments to the original script and story, makes you wonder why it wasn't a musical in the first place. The rich 1960s setting is brimming with creative fervour and is perfectly offset by a politically uneasy Baltimore, the crucible for the country’s racial tensions. Despite a few minor uncomfortable moments when you wonder if the script has been adequately updated with modern sensibilities in mind, issues of race and segregation through the lens of the 1960s are deftly handled, if in a fairly cheesy way. 

Melbourne’s latest production of Hairspray is a fairly true recreation of the original musical book, littered with familiar faces from the Australian stage and screen. Shane Jacobson (From 2006 film, Kenny) makes for a raucous and yet endearing Edna Turnblad, while Todd McKenney is deliciously relaxed in his role as her dedicated husband Wilbur. Rhonda Burchmore should have been a shoo-in as colourful (but not colour-blind) villain Velma Von Tussle, but seemed strained hitting her notes, while Rob Mills, although perfectly cast as the slick Corny Collins, was perhaps not so perfectly cast vocally for the show’s style of music.

Javon King plays an excellent Seaweed, genuinely caring of his Penny, and Sean Johnston is well cast as heartthrob Link. Asabi Goodman competently steps into the legendary role of Motormouth Maybelle, delivering powerhouse vocal performances that had the audience cheering.

If there were standouts in the cast, it would have to be the girls. Newbie Carmel Rodrigues (Tracy Turnblad) never stumbled over a single note; pitch perfect and an excellent dancer to boot, she held the show throughout. Australia’s Got Talent grand finalist Brianna Bishop (Amber von Tussle) was delightfully evil, never once appearing self-conscious in the role, and Mackenzie Dunn delivered an excellent foil to confident Tracy with her kooky, comical Penny Pingleton. 

In fact, a moment needs to be taken to acknowledge the incredible dancing in the show, choreographed by Kinky Boots’ Jerry Mitchell. Flawlessly executed and with a level of energy that was simultaneously infectious and tiring to watch (I was out of breath for them), it was only paralleled by the rousing vocal performances, vibrant costuming (by William Ivey Long), sky-high wigs (by Paul Huntley), and world-class scenery (by David Rockwell) that evolved around the actors, rolling in and out subtly with pinpoint precision.

Director Jack O’Brien has a hell of a team on his hands here, and was rewarded with a standing ovation on opening night. But for all its excellent points, it did make me wonder whether it suffered by prioritising a few familiar names on the marquee in certain roles – after all, the names that really made the show for me, weren’t the ones at the top of the press release.

Written by
Bianca O'Neill

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