If you thought Mamma Mia! was the ultimate feel-good musical of the past decade, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Double that feeling and you’ve got the Melbourne production of Hairspray, now showing at The Princess Theatre. Hands down, this is one of the best musicals this city has witnessed in a long while. And if you thought Hairspray may be a show you’re not prepared to part your hard-earned cash for, think again. Hairspray is so good, seeing it once is simply not enough.
22 year-old Jaz Flowers is a breath of fresh air as main character Tracy Turnblad. A graduate of the Music Theatre course at Ballarat University, Flowers is a showstopping talent with a beautiful voice and a stage presence well beyond her years and experience. Perfectly cast in the main role, she has energy, pizzazz, comic timing and a dance step that’s not too shabby, either. Most impressive is Flowers’ ability to engage her audience; a mighty task in a 1,500-seat theatre. She is just as exciting to watch from the back of the grand circle as she is from the front of the stalls. Enjoy her skills as a performer, because this rising star of the Australian theatre scene isn’t going anywhere soon.
Jack Chambers (Link Larkin) in many respects steals the show with his good looks, angelic voice and mesmerising dance steps. This may be what you’d expect from Australia’s first So You Think You Can Dance winner of 2008 and the good news is he doesn’t disappoint. Comedy plays a vital part of the success of Hairspray and you’ll be laughing until it hurts at Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, played by Esther Hannaford, and Tracy’s arch enemy Amber Von Tussle, portrayed by Renee Armstrong. These two actresses are hilarious in their respective cardboard cut-out roles. Hannaford is a gem as the geeky, gorky, uncoordinated nerd, while Armstrong is a total crack up as the caricatured villainess, perfectly displaying a nasty Legally Blonde.
Trevor Ashley is great as Tracy’s mother Edna. It’s a tough gig when your predecessors have been Divine on the London stage and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, but Ashley plays the role with aplomb. Meanwhile, Scott Irwin is fabulous as the cheesy, all-smiling Corny Collins. Tevin Campbell as Seaweed J. Stubbs is a heartthrob for the girls, matching Chambers as Link Larkin. Why does Campbell plays his role so smoothly, you ask? Well, he performed the same role in the Broadway production of Hairspray not so long ago. Cle Morgan portrays a powerful Motormouth Maybelle, while Grant Piro plays a highly entertaining Wilbur Turnblad. All up, the casting in this show is meticulously accurate and a joy to watch. All the principal roles are performed with such strength, your only difficulty will be deciding which ones to follow closely during the show. It’s a smorgasbord of talent. While the youth in the recent version of West Side Story didn’t quite sit right on a number of levels, the talented young cast members of Hairspray suit the show perfectly.
One thing you’ll notice about Hairspray, no matter where you sit in the house, is that it is loud, sometimes very loud. This is a good thing! The music and singing in this show are hard to fault. The orchestra sounds fantastic and if you are one of those who gets frustrated by performers who cannot sing their lines with clarity, the diction delivered in all songs in Hairspray is spot on. Just like the movie, Hairspray’s score is infectious. You’ll be leaving the theatre singing songs like “Good Morning Baltimore”, “Welcome To The 60s” and “You Can’t Stop The Beat”.
From start to finish, Jason Coleman’s choreography in this show is a visual feast. While the dancing in the Melbourne production of Mary Poppins is incredibly tight only a few blocks from Hairspray, particularly during everyone’s favourite Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Hairspray’s choreography blends beautifully with stage direction and character movement, throughout. Meanwhile, the big show-stopper numbers in Hairspray are dance extravaganzas.
A rare occurrence in musical theatre premieres has resulted in the Melbourne production of Hairspray not looking like its counterparts did on the West End or Broadway. Nearly all major musical theatre shows are purchased like a franchise, with quality control ensuring the sets, characters, costumes etc all look exactly like the original stage version did. New for the Melbourne production is an incredible set comprised almost exclusively of several enormous 7-metre tall television-like screens. As video technology continues to creep its way into contemporary theatre, the type of technology seen in Melbourne’s Hairspray is the first of its kind in the world.
The outer ring on the edges of the proscenium of the Hairspray set is the shape of a 60s television screen. All aspects of the show are cartoon-like and the huge video screens create a series of moving sets behind the performers. Developed by Sydney-based company Digital Pulse, this will almost certainly be the most impressive use of technology you have ever seen in a theatre production. Using animation and motion graphics, the brightly coloured sets not only move, but cleverly interact with the characters on stage. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea and they can make one a little giddy at times, this is an unbelievable set on a series of screens that leave your 50-inch plasma at home looking like your little sister’s iPod.
The Melbourne production of Hairspray showcases Australia’s ability to produce an international musical as good, if not better, than those on Broadway and the West End. This is first-rate musical theatre. Be prepared to go once, twice, three times if you can!
Official Hairspray Australia Website