Hairspray happiness

Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular (Harvest Rain Theatre Company)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 8 – 10

Harvest Rain’s “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” is everything it promises…. It’s big, fat and full of fun, perfect for the final days of school holidays. With a mass ensemble of 900 young performers (some as young as nine years old), the Brisbane Convention Centre is often filled to the point of never knowing where exactly to look, which is perhaps befitting for a show in which the bulk of the characters are teenagers themselves.

The musical has evolved through various incarnations, from the 1988 John Waters’ big-screen original to a Tony Award winning Broadway production and subsequent 2007 film. The plot here remains the same as the audience is taken to segregated 1962 Baltimore. Fiesty teen Tracy Turnblad (Lauren McKenna), a big girl with a big heart and even bigger hair, has only one desire – to be a dancer on the popular Corny Collins TV show. When her dream comes true, Tracy is transformed from social outcast to sudden star alongside her teen idol, Link Larkin (Dan Venz), but it is a transition that doesn’t come without its problems as her social conscious compels her to spearhead a campaign to racially integrate the show.

It is a production filled with movement and energy from its opening moments. After a rousing ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ in which Tracy muses about her fondness for her hometown, her love of dancing, and her desire to be famous, the pace pumps with a toe-tapping introduction to the Corny Collins TV cast, the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’. The mass ensemble adds interest to the aesthetic when synchronized in their choreography and while a full scale ‘The Madison’ is a little overwhelming, the tsunami of performers that floods the stage for the show’s famous final anthem ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ makes for a memorable conclusion. The optikal bloc projections across the screen (bigger that the biggest IMAX in the world) also enhance the explosion of colour created by staging and costumes.

McKenna (seen recently as Martha in “Heathers”) is fabulous as the ever-optimistic Tracy, big on voice and personality. And her comic performance in swoon over Link during her Act One ‘I Can Hear The Bells’ dream about what life would be like if she pursued a relationship with him, makes her all the more infectiously likeable. She is supported by a strong cast, including Venz as teenage heartthrob Larkin and Emily Monsma as Tracy’s dorky and devoted best friend Penny. Indeed, Monsma embraces every opportunity provided by the side-kick role, making it very much her own and stealing every scene in which she appears. Simon Burke is touching in the classic cross-dressing role of Tracey’s house-bound, fearful mother Edna, who makes for an endearing double act with on-stage husband Wilbur (Wayne Scott Kermond). Their performance of ‘You’re Timeless to Me’ is at once tender and comic-filled.

Tim Campbell is perfect as the peppy Corny Collins, with sensational voice and smooth dance moves that leave the audience wanting to see more. And as Seaweed Stubbs, Barry Conrad (perhaps best known for his time on “X-Factor Australia” in 2013) showcases some outstanding vocals. Amanda Muggleton seems to delight in the dastardly role of station producer Velma Von Tussle with Cruella de Vil like glee, bringing a cartoonish villainy to the larger-than-life character. And as the self-described big, blonde and beautiful Motormouth Maybelle, host of The Corny Collins Show’s Negro Day, Christine Anu brings attitude and then some. Her soulful rendition of the musical’s most serious-minded song, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ makes for a powerful and inspiring anthem.

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So skilled and entertaining are the core cast that it almost makes you wish for the usual theatre stage experience where intimacy and character connection have not been sacrificed in creation of the record breaking production, as like in 2014’s “Cats”, the spectacular’s scale is sometimes alienating to full appreciation of individual lead performances.

“Hairspray” is a happy musical of good humour and fun. With the addition of 900 excited youths, the joy within the “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” eventatorium is infectious. With buoyant performances and toe-tapping ‘60s-style musical numbers, there is certainly much to smile about both during and in memory of the experience of being welcomed to the ‘60s.

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