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. 

 Dainty Consolidated Entertainment and Roadshow LiveTPrincess Theatre Saturday, 2 October, 2010  HairsprayAs 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 Tonys 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 says 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 have been 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 white 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.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *