09 October 2010

Review: Hairspray

Dainty Consolidated Entertainment and Roadshow Live
2 October 2010
Princess Theatre

As a chubby chick with big hair who has been known to rant about the obscenity of racism and has a fondness for 80s queer cinema, Hairspray is my kind of show. Kind of.

Based on the 1988 John Waters film (staring Divine, Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono and Go Ricki Go Ricki Lake),  Hairspray won Tony's in 2003 and John Travolta filled Divine's cups in the film version of the musical.  The much-anticipated Australian version is all new and conceived and directed by David Atkins. All are set in 1962 Balitmore where fat chick Tracy Turnblad wants to dance on the teen hit The Corny Collins Show and doesn't know why every day can't be Negro Day on the tv program. With an obese mum who's scared to leave the house, a school that doesn't get her, a skinny blonde rival called Amber and a segregated fearful town, Tracy has some obstacles to overcome.

From the opening giant screen showing black and white delights like the duck and cover nuclear war turtle and the Flintstones advertising fags, there's no doubt that the world we're about to play in is going to be something unexpected, but nothing can fully prepare you for the design.

Cast and crew had their lips sewn shut during rehearsal because it is so spectacular. It's rare to see something totally new and this design of moving LCD screens with animated pictures is so mind-blowing that it takes a while for your eyes to finish orgasming and accept that this is how good it's going to be all night.  It's like being thrown into your favourite cartoon (or game) with the colour turned to the top of the dial. It made me regret wearing black. (And we get fined for that in Melbourne.)

To match the visual joy, choreographer Jason Coleman proves why every So You Think You Can Dance contestant should listen to everything he says. This is the kind of dance that lets you forget its technical prowess and makes you want to dance; and he has a cast who know how to turn movement into joy.

Since Waters discovered Lake, unknowns have been cast as Tracy. Twenty-two-year-old Jaz Flowers is Melbourne's find and she takes about 30 seconds to win every heart in the audience.  This Tracy is so full of love that her naivety that there's nothing wrong with being fat, ugly, black, male, female or even skinny and white is so genuine that you have to believe that's its true. Even so, I'd still like to see a smidge of doubt and anger to really make her decisions shine because they come from a place that isn't so back and white.

The rest of the cast are just as awesome and the casting choices are sensational, including Renee Armstong (Amber), Ester Hannaford (Tracy's bff Penny), Scott Irwin (Corny Collins), Cle Morgan (Motormouth Maybelle) and Grant Piro (Tracy's dad Wilbur).

In the original film Tracy's mum Edna was played by 42-year-old Glenn Milstead, who went by the name Divine. Divine played men and women throughout his career and died in his sleep a week after Hairspray was released. All Ednas since have been played men. Our Edna is Trevor Ashley and his Edna is winning as many hearts as Tracy. What struck me though about his knock-em-dead performance is that he plays Edna as a drag queen. Edna is not a drag queen; she is a woman. There's a noticeable difference between a man being a queen and a man playing a woman. Drag queens tend to be characters we laugh at. Edna is funny, but (as Divine and Travolta knew) she never deserves to be laughed at.

For all the marvellousness of Hairspray, there were elements that didn't tickle my heart.

If you think musical theatre is a lesser art designed for feel good, middle ground, please everyone and don't rock the boat entertainment, then Hairspray IS the feel good, bring Nanna and the kids show of the year. But I don't think musical theatre is a lesser art. I watch it the same way I watch the artiest show at the Melbourne International Arts Festival or the tiniest Fringe festival show. I enjoy a show based on how it makes me feel.

John Waters described his film as "a satire on two of the most dreaded genres: the teen flick and the message movie." Our Hairspray has become both and so loses much of the guts and power that it could have. This Tracy's too nice to spit at cops, no one is called a mullato and no white girl is poked with an electrified stick because she hung out with black folk. These scenes come from the satirical version, but by smoothing off the sharp edges and giving the musical a big happy ending without the underlying darkness that pushes the plot, Hairspray's message can become almost irrelevant.

It's lovely to think that Penny and Seaweed are going to be happy for ever because racism disappeared in 1962, but everyone who watches Hairspray knows that the same type of ignorance still exists today. The over-the-topness of Waters' satire made this clear, but the musical shows it as a world that has been made good. This never feels right in a show that has photos of Martin Luther King and 1960s race protests. Nor does it feel right that some of the "black" ensemble looked like they were assisted by make-up.

I know that thearte is a world of make believe and pretendies. I know that CATS couldn't be cast with real cats and that no real trains could be found for Starlight Express because they can't rollerskate or hold a tune, but there's something that feels so wrong about seeing blacked-up folk in a show about racism. Did we learn nothing from Harry Connick Jr's hissy on Hey Hey? If we lived in a theartrical world where people were regularly whited-up because they were the best person for the part then perhaps this wouldn't be an issue.

There is so much wonderful about Hairspray that discussions about racism and satire and intent can become meaningless. It's a great show, but what was once a brave, angry, funny and queer story has become quaint.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com.


  1. name ONE blacked up white person in the cast! What a ridiculous angle to take.. All the coloured cast of Hairspray are COLOURED, hispanic, Maori, Phillipino etc. and would have felt the hard edge of racism, certainly if they'd lived in the 60's. To suggest that a black cast have to all be "African American" is as racist as it comes!
    Not Happy Jan

  2. Good point. I'm sorry that my writing isn't clear. I wasn't trying to suggest that the cast should all be African American.

  3. I have to disagree with this review. We don't laugh at Edna. And the fact that there is still racism is why the show is relevant today! And you can interpret it also as a statement on homophobia or a belittling of any minority. This musical has a message and makes it in a feel-good way which can be just as powerful as what you are suggesting should have been done. Actually probably more powerful as it's more subliminal, works it's way into the subconscious, whereas a more negative approach would just turn people off.

  4. Another terrific point. One of the many joys of theatre is that even though we're watching the same show, we can see something so different. I hope most people see the positive side as FU (yes I too love The Odd Couple) did.

  5. Unfortunately, this review reads like a theatre review in a union newsletter - it does the task, but lets the writer’s worldview come through too much.

    The reach for the political correctness manual is unfair to the spirit of the production. The drag queen vs woman jibe hints at a yawn-inducing hark back to the sort of officious PC and gender politics I thought we’d left behind a decade or two ago (along with amusing references to Melbournians wearing black).

    And the make-up claim is another cheap and unwarranted shot, with the blackface reference off the mark. Blackface had a specific cultural context and no fair comparison can be made to either the themes or styling employed in Hairspray.

  6. It does seem that a lot of people are amazed by and enjoy the use of LCD screens in the show. I have seen it variously referred to as groundbreaking and brilliant. I thought it was just lazy! 30 seconds in when I realised there would be no set and barely any props the show lost me for the evening.

    The stage felt empty and the LCD screens, whilst impressive, added no value to what should be a joyful musical. In fact, the exact timing required for interacting with the virtual set made the performances feel mechanical. My hope that the screens would grow on me never came to fruition and I struggled to decide whether to return after interval.

    In the end I am obviously in the minority. The performance received a standing ovation from an adoring audience. I might have stood for one performer but the computer operator doesn't get to bow.

  7. I bought tickets to see Hairspray in Sydney at the end of the month. I really do hope it is as good as the Melbourne show. Hairspray tickets aren't cheap...