REVIEW: Hairspray (North Shore Music Theatre)

The only thing better than Hairspray...? Hairspray on stage!

Shake and Shimmy  [by James Wenley]

The only thing better than Hairspray...? Hairspray on stage!
The only thing better than Hairspray…? Hairspray on stage!

I have a distinct memory of sitting in the cinema in 2007 when I was intoxicated by my first whiff of Hairspray. The opening West Side Story shot of Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad getting out of bed, dancing down the hallway… from that very first “Oh, oh, oh…”, I was hooked. You would have seen a huge grin on my face as Tracy tapped down the streets – oh look its John Waters flashing – as she sings her ode to her neighbourhood. Good Morning Baltimore is a perfect mix of Musical theatre pep and subversion. My point is the movie hooks you from the opening beat.

I’m pleased to report, so too does North Shore Music Theatre’s production of the 2002 Marc Shaiman composed Broadway Musical. We’re in good hands with Heather Wilcock’s adorable Tracy Turnblad’s big belting voice, and when she hops out of bed we meet the rats and flasher in turn, not to mention the energetic ensemble. They say if you can get ‘em with the opening and closing number then the punters will come away happy, and this show certainly does that, but the numbers in between are equally bursting with pizazz thanks to the cast and director Grant Meese, Musical Director Catherine Carr and choreographer Rhonda Daverne. It’s a toe-tapping joy from start to finish.

Adapted from John Waters 1988 Film, Hairspray is a bright nostalgic vision of the early 1960s. Tracy Turnblad dreams of being a dancer on the Corny Collins show (and being heartthrob Link Larkin’s special girl!).  But when she joins the show and becomes a hit, she and her friends have a bigger struggle to overcome: racial integration. You can easily accuse the musical of simplifying civil rights battles through equating this with body image discourse. All conflict melts away in a song and dance number to end all song and dance numbers (You Can’t Stop the Beat). You can certainly agree however that if we had more Tracy Turnblads the whole question could have been settled a lot earlier.

Onstage the conveniences of plot are much more exposed than the film, and the plan to hijack the national broadcast of the Collins is particularly hair brained (seriously, you think Tracy might be in that giant hairspray canister and you don’t bother to look?). What we do get though are some wonderful musical numbers cut from the film; mother and daughter sing off Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now, Larkin’s heartthrob solo (hijacked by Tracy) It Takes Two, and jailhouse rock The Big Dollhouse.

Set Design, by Harold Moot (shared between the consortium of Musical Theatre societies staging the musical across the country), largely replicates the Broadway staging. It’s an appealing cartoonish aesthetic, as if we’re seeing the world from Tracy’s rosy perspective. A large backdrop screen is utilised throughout and adds 60s inspired visual punch.  Whereas musical society productions have often over-reached in the The Civic, director Grant Meese’s Hairspray fits snugly in Skycity Theatre. It’s the perfect sized home.

Russell Dixon‘s Edna Turnblad is strangely muted. Played somewhere between Harvey Fierstein’s (Broadway originator) drag camp outrageousness, and John Travolta’s girlishness, Russell aims for a naturalistic approach and colder Edna. Letting his curvaceous costume do the acting for him, he doesn’t manage to bring the larger-than-life character to full glory. It’s not till the charming number You’re Timeless to Me, with David Adkin’s jokester Mr Turnblad as foil, that I feel like we really get to see Edna.

We have to wait a while till meeting Lavina Williams as Motormouth Maybelle, but once we do, we can’t forget her. Claiming the role for her own, I Know Where I’ve Been  is a soulful, impactful, and poignant highlight. Stephanie Liebert as Velma von Tussle is a wicked prima-donna and Andrew Allen’s toothy grin as Corny Collins reaches to the very back of the theatre.

The younger members of the cast are spot on. Stella Wilson-Staab has a sweet comic handle on Penny, Josh Martin’s Seaweed is the man with all the moves, Caleb Jago-Ward gives substance to teen idol Link Larkin, and Alexandra Light’s Amber Von Tussle is a charming brat.

Hairspray represents the new standard in pro-amateur Musical Theatre in Auckland. I didn’t want to stop the beat.

Hairspray is presented  by North Shore Music Theatre and plays at Skycity Theatre until 6 September. More details see iTICKET

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Kate Ward-Smythe

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