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  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Sydney Lyric Theatre, Darling Harbour
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. "The Turnblatts" dance together, with additional cast looking on from the back of the set
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  2. The cast of Hairspray, in character, stand around a set piece from the 'corny collins' show
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  3. Rhonda Birchmore, in character, sits on a table with four teenage boys surrounding her
    Photograph: Jeff Busby
  4. Hairspray Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Hairspray/Jeff Busby
  5. Hairspray Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Hairspray/Jeff Busby

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Hairspray is camp musical fun that’ll leave you on a beehive sugar high, but the best performances don’t come from the names you already know

The nicest kids in town have arrived, with the latest Australian production of Hairspray grapevining onto the Sydney Lyric stage after opening in Melbourne.

There’s no denying it: this show will whip you up in a dizzying cloud of pseudo-retro nostalgia and place you back down on Earth with a Teen Queen’s winning smile affixed on your face. With a fun and colourful set, strong performances, high camp comedy (with a few moments of pathos thrown in), and toe-tapping songs that’ll have you belting along, this direct-from-Broadway production will leave you with a sugar high higher than the highest beehive ‘do. 

As our Melbourne reviewer put it last year, all the dance numbers are “flawlessly executed, with a level of energy that is simultaneously infectious and tiring to watch”.

Newcomer Carmel Rodrigues makes her professional debut as Tracy Turnblad, the socially outcast, dance-loving teenager coming of age in 1962 Baltimore as the fight for racial integration is heating up, whose ultimate dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show. (In a full-circle moment, the Sydney-raised 23-year-old actually played Tracy in her high school production of Hairspray.) There’s never a moment where we’re not rooting for Rodrigues as she brims with Turnblad’s ceaseless optimism, pursuit of social justice and doe-eyed lust for teen heartthrob Link Larkin (Sean Johnston). 

A swathe of well-known names crowds the posters spruiking this production. Todd McKenney plays Tracy's doddering, joke-store-running father Wilbur. Cabaret icon Rhonda Burchmore (accompanied by her famously long legs) gives great villain as Velma Von Tussle (audiences who aren’t acquainted with her schtick mightn’t “get it” – but if you do get it, you’ll eat it up). Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) is a perfect fit as Corny Collins, taking over from Rob ‘Millsy’ Mills, who fulfilled the role in the Melbourne season.

And then there’s Shane Jacobson, the iconic Aussie entertainer who rose to fame with the 2006 porta-loo worker mockumentary Kenny, and who fulfils a lifelong dream of playing Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to make of Jacobson taking on this role – which was originated by drag superstar Divine in John Waters' original 1988 cult film, before going on to be played by the legendary Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, and by John Travolta in the 2007 film remake. 

It’s nothing personal. My hesitation stemmed from Aussie culture’s Footy Show-esque tradition of straight men dressing up in drag that often leads to unkind, sexist portrayals of women. But to my relief and delight, Jacobson gives a fully rounded (no pun intended), committed performance. By the time he busts out of the doors of the Mr Pinky's Hefty Hideaway boutique during ‘Welcome to the ’60s’ as a glamorous, fully realised Edna Turnblad complete with a feather-trimmed gown, there's no turning back. Hey mama! One might even say that it’s time to “let go, go, go of the past now” and “say hello to the love in your heart”. 

Jacobson and McKenney’s chemistry is nothing short of endearing as they perform ‘(You’re) Timeless to Me’, reaffirming the Act II number as a sweet and enduring love song. It’s only a niggle, but it’s a shame that McKenney plays up moments of disgust at Edna’s voluptuous body – in theory, the main attraction of Tracy’s parents is that Wilbur does nothing but worship everything about his wife. 

Elsewhere, it's actually the performers that didn’t get top billing who serve up some of the strongest performances in the whole show. New York City-based entertainer Javon King is an absolute stand-out as Seaweed J Stubbs, Tracy’s smooth-talking pal from detention. His performance of ‘Run and Tell That’ really lifts the energy towards the end of Act I, and he shares a charming chemistry with WAAPA graduate Mackenzie Dunn as Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s over-protected, gum-popping best pal. 

Sydney born-and-raised performer Ayadna Dladla is another electric presence as Seaweed’s sister Little Inez; and Brisbane-based, American-born performer Asabi Goodman pulls out all the stops as Seaweed’s mother Motormouth Maybelle. She ensures that the Act II ballad ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ packs the tear-jerking gut-punch that it should. The gospel-style number opens up a moment of catharsis in the show that invites the audience to reflect on how far race relations have come since the ’60s, but how much still needs to change. 

Hairspray is a classic for a reason, and it's always guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser. But it's also good to know that we live at a time where (sometimes, at least) a story about People of Colour fighting for justice doesn't require a white (or white passing) lady protagonist to get a platform; and where women can just be fat and happy without their weight being brought up so damn often.

Hairspray is performing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre until March 26, 2023. Get your tickets here

Alannah Maher
Written by
Alannah Maher


Sydney Lyric Theatre
The Star
Pirrama Rd
From $65

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