Initially in 1988, we saw the original Hairspray film starring John Waters make some significant noise. In 2002, the Broadway musical made it’s Broadway debut. Then, in 2007, a film adaptation of the Broadway musical starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, and Zac Efron brought this fantastic musical to a whole new audience. Finally, Australians can see a replica of the Broadway production that emerged on stage 20 years ago, now at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre.
With a talented cast consisting impressive of theatre debuts and theatre legends such as Shane Jacobson, Todd McKenney and Rhonda Burchmore, original direction by Jack O’Brien, original choreography by Jerry Mitchell, local direction by Matt Lenz, re-created choreography by Dominic Shaw, stunning set designs by David Rockwell, and colourful costuming designed by William Ivey Long, one would think that this version of Hairspray would contain the perfect ingredients for a fantastic time, and you’d be right.
Purposefully designed to look like a TV, the distinct designs and colour of the sets and costumes really help transport audiences back to Baltimore in the 1960s, where the hair was higher, slender models were redefining the standards of beauty for women, and segregation in the US was on its last leg.
Our heroine, Tracey Turnblad is a curvy young school girl whose dream is to dance on local TV broadcast, The Corny Collins Show. While these dreams may be small, they lead onto a much bigger journey.
Following tradition, Tracy Turnblad has always been a newcomer to professional theatre and with this production of Hairspray, the tradition lives on with Carmel Rodrigues making her professional musical theatre debut. Rodrigues’ Tracy is wholesome, raw, real, and is simply delightful. Her vocals are clear and are magic to the ears, plus I loved every moment that she was on stage. Her chemistry with Jacobson and McKenney also feels very believable, making for the cutest on-stage family ever.
Rodrigues isn’t the only fresh face on the block, with Javon King playing the infectiously charming and confident Seaweed in his Australian debut. Mackenzie Dunn, Sean Johnston, and Brianna Bishop also shine as the socially awkward Penny, the handsome Link, and the selfish Amber Von Tussell respectively.
Playing Amber’s mum Velma Von Tussell, Australian theatre icon Rhonda Burchmore is great as the privileged white female judgemental and prejudice producer of The Corny Collins Show. Even though Velma is an unlikeable character, you can’t help but adore Burchmore as the stuck up, rich villain, who despite her actions, just wants to provide the best opportunities possible for her daughter. Rob Mills is perfectly cast as Corny Collins. With his smooth voice and bright smile, I could not have imagined anyone else in the role.
Asabi Goodman is incredible as Motormouth Mabel. Her vocals really left me gobsmacked, especially during her heartfelt and moving performance of ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’. You really feel the pain that her character and her character’s community are feeling. Not to mention she looks stunning in her costume!
Shane Jacobson and Todd McKenney also have fantastic chemistry on-stage and are great as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. They’re just so darn cute together, you can’t help but gush in awe whenever they had a fun, cheeky but heartfelt moments. The pair really make the characters their own.
Admittedly, I didn’t find the performances flawless. The show felt a bit rehearsed in some parts and didn’t appear as natural as I would have liked. However, I feel this can be amended, as it is only a matter of time before the cast grow into their characters. Needless to say, Hairspray still makes for a fantastic night out and is a must-see musical for theatre and film fans alike. Film fans will also be introduced to songs ‘Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now’, ‘Cooties’, and ‘The Big Dollhouse’ which weren’t performed in the 2007 musical film adaptation.
Containing catchy numbers including ‘Good Morning Baltimore’, ‘Welcome to the 60s’, and ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’, Hairspray is a vibrant nostalgia trip, with a great story worth telling and is a guaranteed good time for all. Hairspray also provides depth and important messages that even today bears repeating regarding sensitive topics about body positivity, bullying, white privilege, and racism.
As a plus sized woman, I loved seeing Tracy’s confidence in Hairspray and found her story inspiring. As a person of colour, I felt empowered, eager to act, recalled the awful racial slurs that I copped during Covid lockdown, and was reminded that the battle for equality still isn’t over.
Hairspray is now playing at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until the 2nd of October.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.