Musical review: Hairspray

This new production reprises the original classic musical but the large venue dwarfs the spectacle.

For a particular generation, Hairspray was the most popular musical of the time. This fabulously fun stage adaptation of John Waters’ quirky 1988 film opened on Broadway 20 years ago and became a theatrical juggernaut. It tapped into the zeitgeist in a way few shows rarely do, went on to sweep the Tony Awards and was adapted back into a film again in 2007 with a cast including John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron. This new Australian production is billed as the ‘original Broadway version’ and it delivers what is says on the box.

Australian audiences were treated to a very different interpretation of Hairspray over a decade ago when the premiere season opened at The Princess Theatre in October 2010. Typically, when a hit Broadway musical comes to town, we get an exact carbon copy of the original (or sometimes touring) production; the sets, costumes, direction and even performances are all set in stone.

However, this version of the show was completely and radically reimagined by director David Atkins with a new design that cleverly incorporated massive LED screens for the set, a choice that was quite ground-breaking for the time, new costume designs and choreography.

This level of creative freedom with an established and successful property was unheard of and the resulting production felt both faithful and fresh. This latest staging isn’t as inventive, but it’s a great chance for Hairspray enthusiasts and new audiences to enjoy this very entertaining and heart-warming show.

It’s 1962 in Baltimore and Tracy Turnblad (Carmel Rodrigues), a teen with big hair and an even bigger heart, lives with her reclusive mother Edna (Shane Jacobson) and kooky father Wilbur (Todd McKenney). All Tracey wants to do is dance on The Corny Collins teen TV show and she sets about making her dreams come true with the help of her wacky bestie Penny (Mackenzie Dunn), teen heartthrob Link (Sean Johnston) and fellow outcast Seaweed (Javon King). Tracey becomes a passionate advocate for ending racial segregation on the show and bringing modern dance moves to American audiences.

Shane Jacobson and Todd McKenney. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Jacobson and McKenney lead the cast brilliantly. Jacobson effortlessly makes the audience fall in love with Edna and the pair’s duet ‘(You’re) Timeless to Me’ in act two highlights their comedic chemistry brilliantly. The younger performers are a bit of a mixed bag. Rodrigues, in her professional debut, gets the basics of Tracey right, but there was a sense of hesitation in her opening night performance. I’m sure she will settle into this mammoth role as the season continues.

A standout in the cast is Javon King as Seaweed; his riff-tastic vocal prowess, solid sense of characterisation and gravity-defying dance skills are off the charts. He’s definitely one to watch. The ensemble is suitably cheesy and they pull off Jerry Mitchell’s thrilling and athletic choreography with gusto. The final number ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’ is one of the most feel-good finales of any musical ever and the energy of the performers on stage ensured the audience were bopping along in their seats.

This production is obviously designed to tour and unfortunately the set gets eaten up by the vastness of the Regent Theatre stage, which causes some moments of intended spectacle to fall a bit flat. Everything also felt a bit rushed; classic jokes in the book and lyrics didn’t land properly and there wasn’t really a strong sense of connection to the material and between some cast members. I left the theatre with a sense that I’d seen an okay production of a great show.

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In the two decades since Hairspray burst onto the music theatre scene it has been produced all over the world and innumerable times on the amateur theatre circuit and in high schools. It’s a modern classic with an old school Broadway sensibility. This production can’t quite escape this extensive history; therefore we get a strictly conventional and slightly undercooked version of Hairspray.

Hairspray – Presented by John Frost for Crossroads Live
Regent Theatre, Melbourne

Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Music by Mark Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Mark Shaiman
Directed by Matt Lenz (Original Direction by Jack O’Brien)

Cast: Shane Jacobson, Rhonda Burchmore, Todd McKenney, Rob Mills, Asabi Goodman, Carmel Rodriguez

Tickets: $79-$169

Hairspray will be performed until 9 October 2022 before touring to Adelaide in December and Sydney in February.

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.