Review: Hairspray – Adelaide Festival Theatre, 2022

A shining example of everything musical theatre should be – and a little bit more!

A new run of the original Broadway production of Hairspray opened at the Festival Theatre on New Year’s Eve, some twenty years after it first exploded onto the stage in New York, winning eight Tony Awards and a swag of other accolades.

That 2002 production was a colourful stage adaptation of the 1988 film of the same name that was written and directed by John Waters and featured some big stars including Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono. And then there was the 2007 film version that we all know and love with John Travolta, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, playing the marvellous matriarch Edna Turnblad, alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron.

Photo credit Jeff Busby

That key role is played here by the very popular Australian actor Shane Jacobson, again perhaps somewhat unexpectedly given his overtly blokey persona.  Jacobson finds Edna’s steel and her sentiment and wins the audience’s heart immediately. Edna’s kind but rather eccentric husband Wilbur, proprietor of the Har-de Har Hut Joke Shop, is brought to life by the wonderful Todd McKenney whose musical theatre pedigree is outstanding. Jacobson and McKenney’s  second act duet ‘You’re timeless to me’ is an absolute highlight of the show.  

But the real star of the show is, of course, their daughter Tracy Turnblad, the teenager from suburban Baltimore who chases her dream of being a dancer on the Corny Collins hit TV show. The producers have trusted Tracy to young Sydney triple-threat Carmel Rodrigues and she does not let them down. On stage for almost the entire two-plus hours, Rodrigues wins our hearts from the first moments of that iconic opening song ‘Good morning, Baltimore’. She really captures the wide-eyed optimism at the core of her character without sinking into syrupy schmaltz. This is a girl with a big dream and a big heart and the energy and determination to make it happen.

Fans of the movie will know that Hairspray is not just a feel-good musical; it has a broader social agenda as it confronts the racialism that was a reality of American life in the 1960s. There was audible outrage from someone seated behind me at the first mention of the TV show having  “Negro day” once a month. The show also challenges body image stereotypes, especially for young women. As we know, these two issues are as relevant today and they were sixty years ago, with Black Lives Matter and the Body Image Movement typifying these concerns. Sexuality is in there too because even though the key characters are conservative heterosexuals, we know the kissing actors are male, so gender and relationships are also in the mix. And this gives Hairspray its strength and enduring appeal because it’s so much more than a frothy musical about big hair. And yes, there are around 200 wigs in the show and I’m pleased to say there were no wig failures on opening night. The costumes are also a delight and do a lot to tell the story of each character.

The performers are universally good with a great supporting cast alongside the principals. The only disappointment is that Rhonda Burchmore doesn’t get more time in the spotlight. That said, she’s brilliant as the toxic mum Velma Von Tussle, even if it feels like she is holding herself back at every moment. She’s musical theatre royalty and can’t help but own the stage. Brisbane-based American-born performer Asabi Goodman is a real gem as the sassy Motormouth Maybelle. And she can certainly sing! Down in the pit, the live band knocks out the score with flair under musical director and conductor Dave Skelton.

Photo credit Jeff Busby

And a final mention to the slick set design by David Rockwell that uses colourful stage flats and tall scaffolding to great effect.  

The opening night audience loved every moment of the show and the cast showed their professionalism to the last moment as they took their well-deserved bows and left the stage without milking the applause. Style to the very end!

5 stars

Reviewed by Dr Diana Carroll
Photos by Jeff Busby

Hairspray at Adelaide Festival Theatre until January 28, 2023, and then Sydney Lyric Theatre from February 5, 2023.