Review: Hairspray (and Paragraphs: Mary Poppins)

by Jane

To be a total cliché and miss-quote a song title in the review of a show: Hairspray is big, bold, and beautiful.  And LOUD, in every sense of the word.   Loud music, loud voices, loud costumes, and above all, a loud set.  It is a fantastic melding of musical theatre and the performing arts, with ultra modern digital screen technology, leading to a hybrid which shows off the best of both the performance on stage and on digital screens.

You Can't Stop The Beat. Photo Ros O'Gorman.

Premiering on Broadway in 2002, this is the first Australian production, and it is an Australian production.  Taking the book and music from the original, Australian director/conceiver David Atkins has brought together an Australian creative team to deliver a product which makes the eight year gap more than worth it.   The team has delivered a production that is both so technically ambitious and achieving to have been given anything less in past years would have been a great loss.

A huge team came together to make these sets happen: production designer Eamon D’Arcy, creative director of digital content Robbie Klaesi, producer of digital content Tracey Taylor, graphic illustrator Frantz Kantor, and the team at Digital Pulse creating motion graphics and digital effects.

The stage they’ve created is flanked by eight 7m high LED screens, and the centrepiece of the set are three 4m high panels which move up and down the stage.  The set is nearly entirely presented through these LED screens, in a high-colour, high-energy, cartoon backdrop to Baltimore in 1962.   While using flat panels to bring locations to a 3D space could fall flat itself, the large amount of dynamics and movement used within the digital scenes and the level of interaction the cast has directly with the screens means this space is just as dynamic as the actors themselves.

Of course, the flatness is always there: there aren’t 3D glasses or tricks to make you believe that this space is anything less than screens (other than the suspension of disbelief which is inherent in all theatre), and so Atkins, D’Arcy and team have extended this beyond the screens.   As Tracey Turnblad (Jaz Flowers) wakes up to a Baltimore morning and walks down the street, there people play with 2D laminated basketballs.  When Edna Turnblad (Trevor Ashely) is eating a piece of chicken, when Seaweed J Stubbs (Tevin Campbell) pulls out a knife, they are laminated cardboard.  A woman walks down the street with her flat wooden dog.  The cheese which is inherent in the book and score is extrapolated into the set, And through all these cartoons are drawn wonderful fully dimensional characters, and a musical with heart and an important story to tell.

"The Big Doll House" Photo Alia.

Through the innovative set, scenes neatly flow into each other and overlap, as they simply change with a change in the images.  Multiple locations seamlessly exist in the one stage space.   Reaching behind a screen, characters pull bags off the floor of the projection and into the 3D space of the stage.  A costume change occurs instantaneously as characters move from the realm of the stage to the realm of the screen – and then back again.  But in this scene where the digital screens truly become front and centre, as the action transfers from actors on stage to actors on screen, is immediately followed by a scene which completely embraces the medium of theatre as Ashley and Grant Piro, as Wilbur Turnblad are given a moment of improvisation.

The screens aren’t the only dynamic piece of the set, though: six round platforms rise and fall throughout the show, and this movement along with the changes in the screens allows for the changes in scenes to happen seamlessly.  I think there were three blackouts in the whole show.  In a production as technically complex as this, I think perhaps the true hero of the night is the uncredited stage manager and their hundreds of calls.

As screens become more and more a part of our everyday lives (she types, looking at her laptop screen), the temptation to integrate this technology into theatres is great.  I’ve certainly seen it done on small scales, the most successfully being ThemaGin’s Like Brothers In A Bathtub, which saw an actor interacting with a video projection of his character’s twin.  Typically though, I’ve found there hasn’t been enough thought into using a projection or a screen, and they lie somewhere between a gimmick and a distraction.  Not in Hairspray, where everything from interaction with characters through to representation of the lighting (design by Trudy Dalgeish) is completely thought through, plotted and achieved to create something truly special.

But enough about the set: I would have for you to think that is all there is to this production.  Not so.  A fantastic set is of no use to anyone if the rest of the production doesn’t back it up.  But this production delivers in spades.  Book, music and lyrics writing team of Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have created a fun piece, which has a heart and a story to tell about the racist divide of a tv show in early 60s Baltimore.  They tell this story not with preaching, but with fun and enjoyment and celebration, in characters which are

Gorgeously crafted costumes (Janet Hine) suitably make me crave 60s frocks (and with a show this much fun, a little fun with exact time lines of clothing can be forgiven), while wigs (also by Hine) are just as outrageous as you would expect: particular stand out is Velma Von Tussle’s (Marnie McQueen) blonde asymmetrical tilt.

The Dynamites in "Welcome To The '60s" Photo by Ros O'Gorman

Jason Coleman’s choreography is high energy and technically demanding on his cast.  It is easy for dance heavy shows (and So You Think You Can Dance cough cough) to start to rely too much on “tricks” to impress the audience, and while Hairspray doesn’t shy away from showing off the flips and tricks the cast can perform, this is never done at the cost of the choreography, which embraces the 60s, the clean cut ideal of The Corney Collins Show and the soul of Negro Day.

The cast burst with energy in every scene.  I saw a Sunday matinee just before the cast reached their 100th performance, and am at a complete loss as to how they possibly do it.  Reading the program, I was surprised to find quite a few of the cast, including Jack Chambers as Link Larkin, come from the reality tv show So You Think You Can Dance? Now, I am the sort of person to scoff at people from reality tv appearing on my stage, but I was proved completely wrong.

Top billing deservedly goes to Ashely as mother Tracy’s mother who hasn’t left the house in almost a decade.  Ashley brings humour, class and heart to Edna, and I was so glad to finally see him create a character within the confines of a show, after loving him at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

(As an aside, Mark Nadler let it slip/deliberately told everyone that Ashley would be playing the role of Edna at the last Cabaret Festival.  Amongst much hushing from Ashely, Nadler informed us if David Campbell can let slip about Wicked coming to Adelaide, he can tell us about Ashely being cast!  (And McQueen being cast too, for that matter!))

At the heart of the show is Tracy, and Flowers brings this heart to the character:  Tracy Turnblad is loud and big and proud, and from the opening bars when Flowers descends from the flies you know you are in good hands.

As a standout, Esther Hannaford as geeky friend Penny Pingleton (how could she be any other, with a name like that?), gives a beautiful, warm and giving performance, assured in character, in voice, and in wonderfully awkward dancing.  As with Amber von Tussle played by Renee Armstrong, much of what to like in Hannaford’s Penny is the cartoon and exaggerated qualities given.

Armstrong, neatly partnered with McQueen as stage-mother and producer Velma, smiles so wide as to almost break her face.  There is nothing subtle about the pair’s performance – not in voice and not in character – and this is wonderful.

Council Boys and Velma "(The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs" Photo Official Site.

Cle Morgan is powerful in her eleven o’clock number I Know Where I’ve Been, backed up with images from the US civil rights movement on the screen.  Tevin Campbell is running a bit old for Seaweed, but nonetheless is great fun, and he and Hannaford make a suitably adorable couple.  Scott Irwin, as Corney Collins, and Chambers, exuded American Bandstand good looks and confidence.  Piro’s Wilbur is the funny-man of the show, and yet is wonderfully tender in his duet with Ashley You’re Timeless To Me.

(Another aside, Piro was the host of Couch Potato: My best friend in Year 1, Sasha, had his autographed headshot.  We were all very jealous, and very impressed.   I think that’s the first time I was aware you could get such a thing as an autograph.)

I am so glad that not only do I get to see out my theatre-going year with a brilliant show, but I get to finish my reviewing year with suitably raving and gushing review.  Hairspray was everything you want to see and feel and be a part of on the millions-of-dollars, big-musical stage.  It wears its big, cartoon heart on its sleeve, and that’s exactly where it should be kept.

Paul Dainty, Dainty Consolidated Entertainment and Joel Pearlman, Roadshow Live present Hairspray, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.  Directed and conceived by David Atkins, choreographed by Jason Coleman, orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, music supervision by Max Lambert, music direction by Stephen Amos, arrangements by Marc Saiman, sound design by Michael Walters, production design by Eamon D’Arcy, costume and wig design by Janet Hine, lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish.  With Trevor Ashley, Jaz Flowers, Grant Piro, Scott Irwin, Marney McQueen, Jack Chambers, Esther Hannaford, Cle Morgan, Tevin Campbell, Nancy Denis, Renee Armstrong, Jacqui Rae, Grant Scale and company.  At the Princess Theatre, Melbourne.  Tickets currently on sale through to the end of February.  For more information.

Because it’s the end of the year, and I think I’ve had enough writing to settle me, I’m not going to do a full review of Mary Poppins. I think it’s enough to say it has all of the right ingredients: star cast with great performances – particularly Verity Hunt-Ballard in the classy and acidic titular role (for “classy” and “acidic” are about as descriptive as you could get with this Poppins, who through the script is given startlingly little personality), story and songs we all know and love, beautifully crafted set, moments of magic – particularly pulling hat stands and pot plants out of the carpet bag, a brilliant tap routine, and yet… it falls flat.  It’s almost as if the creative team thought with all of those ingredients they didn’t need to work any harder to try and create a connection between the audience.

On the dancing side, while the tap dancing in Step In Time is brilliant, the creators felt the need to pause the great choreography for Bert (Matt Lee) to be hoisted around the proscenium, and a cast of tap dancers has come at the expense of quality dancing in the more balletic choreography.

As Mary’s heels almost skim the heads of the audience in her final accent to the heavens, there is a moment of magic, a moment of yes, we could reach out and touch her, yes this is really happening, and yet, for most of the show, these moments – the corner stone of theatre – are curiously absent.

Mary Poppins. Photo Disney/CML