Let me get this off my chest! Not in a million years would filmmaker John Waters (the Pope of Trash) ever have imagined when writing the 1988 film version of Hairspray, that years later someone (Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) would adapt it as a musical for “straight” America. A family-friendly musical would never have been on his radar until he was offered money, a lot of it, and probably a cut on the box. Much like the recent stage adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Wilde would never have foreseen a woman in the role of the dashingly handsome Dorian Gray. Both these writers worked hard to hone their gay sensibilities (Wilde was thrown in a cell, his criminal conviction…gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts) and their work is full of “camp” references and homosexual in-jokes. These in-jokes come from a lifetime of living (and surviving) as gay men, each writer from a different place and time in history. The fact that heterosexual families are flocking to see Hairspray is a testament to how far the gay movement has come in its fight for acceptance. Even if queer writers must present their stories of persecution deceptively, as is the case with Hairspray. Hmm? Maybe I’m getting a little too heavy for a musical review? No worries. I’ll get on with the show 😊
Hairspray at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne is a great show. Tell your family and friends to get tickets. It’s full of colour, movement and bell ringing. It’s a toe-tapping, hand-clapping, crowd-pleasing musical, that every now and then is affectionately and deceptively, “camp.” And once in a while, it takes a healthy swipe at social constraints. The cast is uniformly strong, with Carmel Rodrígues terrific as Tracy Turnblad, and the dancing is sensational. The choreography is re-created on stage here by Dominic Shaw. The production design by David Rockwell is solid and forever changing, evoking the 1960s exactly the way we want to remember it as! Girls with big hair, and hot young men who can dance up a storm and have BIG…hearts! ♥️ See what I did? It is this type of sexual innuendo that gives Hairspray an edge that other Broadway musicals don’t have. At the performance I saw not every joke worked, camp humour doesn’t come easily (pardon the pun), particularly for some straight-acting performers. But I’ll not nick-pic today, the cast do a fine job handling the edgier moments in the script, even if they do miss a few beats! Wink 😉
The audience learns quickly in the production that you can’t stop the beat! And why would you want to? The musical score is so much fun! What sets Hairspray apart from other Broadway musicals is the subplots of bullying and racial segregation. The lead character Tracy Turnblad is a fat girl living in 1962 Baltimore, Maryland. Tracy dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins TV show. (Collins is played on stage by Rob Mills) Tracy doesn’t fit in…and neither did John Waters and his best friend at school Glenn Milstead, known as the drag artist Divine. Not fitting in is something LGBTQ kids know full well. Divine was relentlessly bullied at school, just like our leading lady, Tracy Turnblad. Like the coloured folk that live on the other side of town in Hairspray, Tracy longs for acceptance and love. Acceptance is something John Waters obviously believes we all deserve, regardless of who we love or the colour of our skin. The script of Hairspray is full of metaphors about queer culture. The themes of acceptance and integration are brilliantly woven into the musical’s book and they give it bite. A queer bite that other “straight” (family-friendly) musicals don’t have!
Shane Jacobson does a fine job playing Tracy’s mother, Edna. (A role created originally for Divine) He never once over-plays his hand in drag. He understands that it’s a prop, and he uses “drag” to simply get him to where he needs to be in order to bring Edna to life. His drag characterisation is never overtly demonstrative. He plays Mrs Edna Turnblad with a lot of warmth and manages to find the “little girl” inside the woman. It’s his confidence playing the “little girl” that gives Jacobson’s Edna Turnblad real heart! It’s a big heart, for a very big lady. He is so good as Edna, my friend I saw the show with thought he was a real woman when he first stepped on stage. Edna, as presented in this production, is a shining example of what a great actor can do with a good role!
The standout moment of the performance I saw was without a doubt, Shane and Todd McKenny’s duet as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad, You’re Timeless to Me. It’s really nothing more than a simple song and dance number. We’ve seen it before in hundreds of musicals… but together, the pair brought the house down. Off stage they are obviously great mates, and it shows on stage. Well, done guys 🥂
A little history. Hairspray the musical opened in Seattle in 2002 and moved to Broadway later that year. In 2003 Hairspray won eight Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, out of 13 nominations. I won’t rave on anymore. I’m sure you can feel my enthusiasm for the show jumping off the page. I’ll wrap up the review so I can start learning how to do the Madison!
But I will say this before I dance off! Hairspray at the Regent Theatre is a tremendous night out. And aside from a few missed camp moments, perhaps the odd hiccup in casting (I won’t go into it) I loved every song and every dance move. The choreography is energetic and the whole production is slick and rambunctious. And as for the story? Well, it’s big, bold, beautiful and deceptively queer! So grab some tickets and “EAT IT UP!”
Melbourne! Welcome to the 1960s.
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