Review: Hairspray – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Playhouse QPAC

Musical theatre – what some believe to be America’s great gift to the theatre – is as Ronald Harwood puts it, a meeting of realism and razzmatazz. Traditionally musicals have taken social issues and reworked them into a confection of story, song and dance. The musical Hairspray follows in this tradition. With book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Mark Shaiman with lyrics by Scott Whittman and Mark Shaiman, Hairspray is as sweet and light as a root-beer float, and positively dripping in nostalgia for a time that was, perhaps, not as carefree and breezy as the play might suggest.

We’re in 1962 Baltimore, MA. JFK’s the President – for another year or so, anyway – and the Civil Rights movement is gathering momentum. There are pockets of ignorant, outmoded white resistance to what will be a bright, new, integrated tomorrow in the USA. Kids who don’t fit – here black or ‘pleasantly plump’/fat – are figures of fun, bullied by various grotesque authority figures, and excluded by their peers. They long for acceptance, and dream of being part of the great American success story. But never fear, this is musical land and, by the play’s end, all’s right with the world.

No wonder Hairspray has been such a hit on screen (1988; 2007) and stage, (8 Tony Awards on Broadway) and why it’s currently the pinup musical for pro-am companies all over the country. It’s bright and colourful, the music is sweetly nostalgic, the sentiment uplifting and hopeful. It’s no Showboat or South Pacific or Rent any of the other great musicals that took burning social issues and thrust them in the audience’s face, but then, Hairspray doesn’t set out to. What we get is a larger than life – the words ‘fabulous’ and ‘fantastic’ spring to mind – technicolor rendition of a time we wish there might have been.

Harvest Rain AD Tim O’Connor directs this production seamlessly. He has staged the ensemble scenes very well indeed, and gets classy performances from the big 38-strong company led by Simon Gallaher as Edna Turnblad. I suspect Mr Gallaher is having as much fun playing Tracey’s good-hearted, working-class, supersize mum as we are at his antics; the man positively twinkles up there. Mr Gallaher’s scenes with ‘his husband’ the endearing Gary Jones (Wilbur) are smooth and sure, whilst the always terrific Liz Buchanan doesn’t miss a beat or have a (big) hair out of place as Velma, killer-mom to the odious Amber (Astin Blaik).

Hairspray is full of roles for a range of ages and types, but it’s youngsters who get the biggest slice of the casting apple pie. The leaders of the teen pack are Casey McCollow as heroine Tracy Turnblad and Dakota Striplin who is, I swear, a Ricky Nelson clone (look him up) as Link Larkin. Both actors – and the delightfully-talented triple threat Ms McCollow is still in training – are musical theatre powerhouses. Tod Strike plays the cool DJ Corny Collins to the manner born. Rachel Dunham is just great as Motormouth Maybelle, and she and the ensemble bring the house down with the powerful anthem ‘I Know Where I’ve Been.’ Props to Callum Mansfield‘s choreography; it’s terrific and the dance ensemble do it proud. The dancing and Ms Dunham’s vocals were the highlights of the production for me.

From direction through production design and performance there is a sense of cohesion and completeness about this production of Hairspray. With set and costume design by Josh McIntosh (spot on 60s) and lit by Jason Glenwright with great sounding musical direction from Maitlohn Drew and the musicians in the pit, the production comes together in a way I’ve not seen before with this company’s work.

OK, peeve time. As with most of their productions the ensemble of interns (student actors) work beside experienced professionals and emerging artists. It’s a mix that works very well in this production … with minor reservations; the inexperience and lack of stage craft show in some of the new kids on the block especially in poor diction which meant entire numbers went by in a haze of mushy lyrics. It has to be said however, that the inexperienced cast’s vocal work was not assisted by the general production sound levels. These were far too high for most of the performance and made for very uneasy listening. A little bit of EQ, please! My ringing ears will thank you for it.

Oh, and the curtain title slide needed focusing. Or do I need to get my eyes checked too!

Hairspray is playing at QPAC’s Playhouse until 1st July. Take the whole family.