Saturday, August 25, 2012

Philo: Hairspray

(Caveat: This is not my best review - it's too long, and full, and still doesn't say everything I wanted it to, or as neatly as I'd like to have said it.  But better to post than polish, I think, if I can get it out while the show's still running.)

In brief - I defy anyone not to love this production.

Yes, there were a few technical glitches on opening night (including one potentially disastrous wardrobe malfunction handled with the sort of aplomb that makes one want to rush on to stage and shake the performer's hand).  But the energy, colour, and sheer joy of Jarrad West's vision of Hairspray is irresistible.

Really, there is so much to like here it's hard to know where to start, but the irreverence begins in the opening street scene (like all street scenes it features the compulsory nun and policeman - I think it's contained in the standard script licensing contract).  It's a tribute to Baltimore - and having been there in the not too distant past, I loved seeing the winos and flashers through the boundless optimism of the irrepressible Tracey Turnblad.  And it's also a tribute to Broadway - in this scene alone are fleeting, blink-and-you'll miss them tributes to Cats, Les Mis, How to Succeed, and possibly Anything Goes (although it could have been On The Town or South Pacific).  And these continue throughout the show, with undisguised nods to Chicago at the beginning of Act 2 and Gypsy at the very end.  As someone who loves loves loves musicals, spotting these was a source of considerable pleasure.

The set is easily the most successful thing Peter Karmel (also in the ensemble) has done to date.  Deceptively simple, and greatly enhanced by Chris Neal's lighting design, it consisted of a variety of hanging signs and platforms that could be easily rolled on and off (or up and down) to re-set a scene, and worked beautifully (except when SM's forgot to move them) under West's direction - there were absolutely no clunky scene changes or empty stage - your focus moved immediately to action on one side of the stage while the scenery on the other was discreetly adjusted.

One quibble here, though - the platform representing Chez Turnblad appeared to have been built to an insufficient depth, which mean that Edna Turnblad's opening scenes - actually almost any scenes in which she was shown at home - were played with her back to the audience as she stood over her ironing board.  If this had been the set-up for some big "reveal" it might have had a point (although it would probably have failed on other grounds, as the charm of Edna is that she is not necessarily played for laughs), but it seemed to be, simply, that if Edna stood behind her ironing board, facing the audience, there would not be enough room on the platform for her to also come out and work in front of it.

More on the production side before I move on to the stellar cast:  Is Rose Shorney the best Musical Director in Canberra?  She brings wonderful performances out of her musicians time and time and time again, from tiny ensembles like Avenue Q's Velvet Underground Glove Puppet band to the 22-piece Titanic orchestra. This effort was flawless, even down to a bit of colla voce for the marvellous Maybelle, a tough thing to manage from a pit.

Choreography from Nicole Slavos and Amy Fitzpatrick was energetic and wildly fun. I did notice some of the dancers not singing, which is certainly forgiveable given the paces they were being put through, and West & Shorney have wisely supplemented them with pit singers. The whole cast gives 100% to the dancing, though, which is no mean feat, and a massive contribution to the pace and momentum of the whole show.

I will confess to not being a huge fan of the dodgeball scene. Black-clad mummers manipulating oversized basketballs through carefully-choreographed slow-motion arcs just felt clumsy and a bit tiresome to me, though I also confess that I can't think of a better way this could have been staged. And it didn't slow the action down for long.

Eclipse (those most usual of suspects) provided light and sound. The lighting design was fabulous and enhanced the set brilliantly; the sound was a let-down. Mics dropped out often, and there was frequent interference from costumes. I saw Jarrett Prosser on the desk, though, so am prepared to put all of this down to hardware failures.  Speaking of costumes - the design was great, if, unfortunately, a few outfits were clearly not quite finished. And the wigs were admirable, especially the astonishing creation atop Vanessa de Jager.

And, oh goodie, now I get to talk about the cast. It's fabulous.  Krystle Innes brings the house down as Tracey Turnblad, bubbling over with joie de vivre, a sensational Broadway voice, and dance moves to match.  Amy Dunham as her shy friend Penny is back to her comic best.  Zach Drury is fun as the feckless Link, though possibly carrying a little too much of his Bud Frump baggage with him; there's more mugging than is strictly necessary.  Will Huang is his usual fabulous self as Corny Collins (another review called him "obsequious", but surely that's the last thing Corny is - smooth, yes, but a toady, absolutely not).

I was quite excited to see Nyasha Nyakuengama as Seaweed; I've been tipping him as a talent since his early days in kids shows (mind you, I've also been calling him "Oliver"; I couldn't tell you why; he may have played a character of that name once).  For someone who claims not to be a dancer he has bags of raw talent.  It was great to see Vanessa de Jager playing the vapid, bitchy Amber after her lovely turn as sweet Rosemary Pilkington, and she matched beautifully with Kate Graham, hamming it up in fine style as the villainous Velma (Miss Baltimore Crabs!).  Lots of laughs, too, from Emma White in a variety of supporting roles.

A special mention has to go to the astonishing Jenny Lu, playing more than twice her age and weight as Motormouth Maybelle.  Her massive gospel number "I Know Where I've Been" was, literally, a showstopper.  If she can do this at 20, I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us in a few more years. Viva! Encore! and Brav - frickin' - a!

And for last: the Turnblads! It is SO good to see Stephen Bardwell back on stage in this post Old-Time Music Hall era! Even if he's not in an animal costume, waggling his eyebrows and calling "I say, I say, I say!!"  This time, in Groucho glasses, he looked uncannily like Stanley Tucci. His Wilbur Turnblad was perfect. And as for Edna Turnblad : I just loved Max Gambale in this role, though I am concerned that the Marge Simpson voice might have shredded his vocal cords by the end of the run.  Resisting the urge to camp her up (I'll assume Jarrad West can take some credit for that as well), Gambale's Edna is just a big, sweet, awkward woman who overcomes her fear and low self-esteem to effect a cartoon of social change. Bless. The Wilbur and Edna love duet was truly genuine and touching, and a highlight of a show that was full of them.

This might be the most fun I've had at a show this year.  From a quick look at seating availability on closing night I don't think it needs me to sell it, but I'm happy to do my bit. I guarantee you'll enjoy this!


  1. I think you're underestimating yourself, this is a fine fine review and quite worthy of the site.


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