Aching with laughter: Hairspray is the silly fun we need right now

Sydney Lyric Theatre, February 9

Until April 2

If you’re dragged to this with gritted teeth by someone you want to please, I promise you it will unclench those teeth. Yes, the stage is peopled with cartoon characters, but they have surprisingly big, three-dimensional hearts. And as the story (originally conceived by John Waters for his 1988 film) bubbles its way through a set and costumes that spike your eyeballs with the lemons and shocking pinks of the 1960s, you’re pulled in head-first by the comedy, the music and the running themes of inclusivity and tolerance.

The set and costumes spike your eyeballs with the lemons and shocking pinks of the 1960s.Credit:Jeff Busby

Beginning a review with what’s happening in the pit rather than on the stage is unusual, but then so is the quality of this band, directed by Dave Skelton: surely as strong as any ever assembled for a show in this country. The sound is punchy, and the playing – including by guitarist Rex Goh and drummer Steve Marin – is so crisp and turbocharged that composer Marc Shaiman’s largely R&B-styled songs rock, swing or swagger their socks off.

Things aren’t too dusty on stage, either. Making her professional debut, Carmel Rodrigues delights in the role of Tracy Turnblad, the teen who’s not going to let her plumpness get in the way of her dream of dancing on TV’s The Corny Collins Show. Rodrigues is completely at home surrounded by a formidable cast of Oz showbiz royalty, including Shane Jacobson, Todd McKenney, Bobby Fox and Rhonda Burchmore. A star, one suspects, is born, and it’s a privilege to witness.

As has become enshrined in all iterations of Hairspray, a man plays Tracy’s mother, and when you look at the above rollcall, who else could that job possibly fall to but Jacobson? He’s joined by McKenney as Tracy’s dad, and what a ball these two have together. During their Act Two duet, (You’re) Timeless to Me, Jacobson suddenly cracked up, obliging McKenney to ad lib some equally funny cover, until the very walls were aching with laughter.

Shane Jacobson and Todd McKenney had the walls aching with laughter.Credit:Jeff Busby

Fox and Burchmore are typically polished, and Asabi Goodman, as Motormouth Maybelle, tears apart the storming, gospel-tinged I Know Where I’ve Been. Two other newcomers also shine: Briana Bishop as the fabulously waspish Amber Von Tussle, and Javon King as Seaweed J Stubbs. The latter joins McKenney as one of the best dancers in a dance-heavy, large-cast show, with Jerry Mitchell’s original choreography recreated by Dominic Shaw – although there’s still scope for the ensemble performances to be tightened.

Jack O’Brien’s original direction is presented by Matt Lenz, the whole conception beautifully interlaced with David Rockwell’s bright, angular, non-literal set. This is an expression of 1962 Baltimore, as that city comes to terms with race relations, which, of course, as with body image, is fundamentally about seeing the person rather than the exterior.

In terms of quality and idiomatic credibility, Shaiman’s songs (with lyrics by Scott Wittman) could seem to be those of an exceptional jukebox musical, instead of being fully integrated with Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book. They add up to a score with few peers among rock, pop and R&B musicals. Of course, everyone in the cast – yes, even Jacobson – can sing, and as you listen, you wonder why some of these songs were never hits, or at least had more of a life outside the show.

Meanwhile, the laughs keep coming and the two-and-a-half hours race by. What’s more, Hairspray will appeal to all ages. It’s a form of silly fun that adds to human wealth.

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