Showing in Sydney for a strictly limited season, this gorgeous, garish musical will have you dancing in your seat. It’s bold, brash, and thoroughly recommended.
Good morning Baltimore!

America,1962: just prior to the seismic appearance of The Beatles. Think black and white TV programs like I Love Lucy, The Beverley Hillbillies, huge beehive hairdos, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Elvis... as all-American as apple pie. But underneath the brightly coloured neon lights ripples the racism, sexism, and turbulent politics of the era.

The American Dream explored in Hairspray (which is based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name) is that of buxom young Tracy Turnblad, who craves an appearance on toothy teenage heartthrob Corny Collins’ TV show (‘I know every step, I know every song’) – but will she ever get a chance? Who will be Miss Teenage Hairspray (as sponsored by Ultraclutch)?

With a huge cast, costumes to die for, a huge multi-level set, and wizard scenic effects, this production has something of a cartoon aesthetic, and incorporates projections that ensure it is accessible to members of Generation Y. The set is designed like a 1960’s TV set.

As our inspirational plus-sized heroine, Tracy, Kirby Lunn is sensational. With an amazing voice, and a great dancer, her brilliant performance carries the show. Her character’s struggle to realise her dream, and also her moral fight for racial equality, are tremendously portrayed.

Tracy’s boyfriend, Link Larkin – a star of The Corny Collins Show – is wonderfully played by Jack Chambers. A Latino lover escapee from Jersey Boys, Chambers is a fabulous singer and a great dancer. A dreamboat indeed.

It’s interesting to note how Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton (Esther Hannaford) changes from mousy, homebound, rather ordinary girl to a trendy 1960’s swinger. Penny’s boyfriend Seaweed (Tevin Campbell), a dancer on The Corny Collins Show, is amazing .Man can that guy dance!

Tracy’s loudmouthed but caring, oversized laundress mother Edna (“a woman of indeterminate girth”) is brilliantly played by Trevor Ashley in drag. Glorious. Wilbur, Tracy’s father, who runs a joke shop, is marvelously played by Grant Piro .Both of them obviously have a whale of a time. Their Fred and Ginger tribute (‘Timeless to Me’) in Act Two stops the show, while Edna’s explosive entrance towards the end of the show in a Corny Collins episode, is truly remarkable.

Behind the scenes of The Corny Collins Show, the stage manager and very pushy stage mother Velma is delightfully and devilishly played by Marney McQueen. Her daughter blonde, beautiful, spoilt and bitchy daughter Amber is brilliantly played by Renee Armstrong, whose amazing final act on The Corny Collins Show piles on everything – hoops, singing, dancing, you name it!

There is one section where we see the three mothers and daughters – Tracy and Edna, Amber and Velma, and Penny and her mother – all singing at once (a sort of split screen/stage effect) where the daughters are trying to remind their mothers they are grown up and break free of parental restrictions. It’s fabulously done.

Record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Cle Morgan) is superb and brings the house down with ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ and other soul-style songs. (There is a ‘Supremes’ style trio of marvelous ladies, here called The Dynamites, who appear throughout the show as well).

Choreographically, a lot of the work is ‘standard’ 1960’s TV style – here in Australia, think Bandstand for example. (This was also the case in early scenes of The Boy From Oz at the Capitol, recently). The scene where Tracy is knocked out on the basketball field is done in slow motion, full of pop art images: Bang! Kapow!

This is a stunning show, full of glitz, glamour and the lurid colours of its time. You can also see the Bridget Riley ‘op art’ influence in the designs.

If you are familiar with the movie versions of Hairspray (both Waters’ original and the 2007 adaptation of the musical) you will note some changes, especially towards the end, but the issues raised are still extremely important and controversial today.

Bold, brash, it glows and sparkles. Hairspray is thoroughly recommended .

Director: David Atkins
Cast: Jack Chambers, Grant Piro, Marney McQueen, Tevin Campbell, Scott Irwin
Lyric Theatre, Star City
June 11 – August 7
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes (approx) including interval

Lynne Lancaster

Friday 24 June, 2011

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.