Review: HAIRSPRAY – THE BIG FAT ARENA SPECTACULAR Proves That Bigger Is (Almost) Better

By: Oct. 21, 2016

Reviewed by JoAnne Hartstone, Saturday, 22 October 16

For three performances only, Harvest Rain presented Hairspray - The Big Fat Arena Spectacular at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre in Hindmarsh. The star-studded cast, including Simon Burke as Edna Turnblad, Christine Anu as Motormouth Maybelle, and Tim Campbell as Corny Collins, were accompanied by over 600 of South Australia's enthusiastic and talented young musical theatre performers. This is a huge touring production which 'trains' or, as some companies call it, 'rehearses' a large local cast in each capital city on its tour schedule, each paying hundreds of dollars to be part of the production. Starting in Brisbane, the arena-sized production has also had an outing in Newcastle, and will travel to Perth next.

The story focuses on the dreamer, Tracy Turnblad who, despite her large physique, is an irrepressible dancer and a hopeless optimist. She lives in Baltimore during the time of segregation between black and white Americans. Her favourite television dance show, the Corny Collins Show, is a mirror to her society, showing only clean-cut, 'wholesome', white teenagers performing in the Corny Collins dance crew, except on Negro Day, when the whole show is run by the big, blonde, and beautiful Motormouth Maybelle. Under the scrupulous control of bigoted producer, Velma Von Tussle, the television show recruits a new dancer to join the crew, and Tracy fights to be accepted and win the affections of heartthrob, Link Larkin. Once she does, Tracy begins a further fight to end segregation and garner acceptance for all people.

The musical is well known, having had multiple movie adaptations as well as many stage seasons. The themes of the show, equality, acceptance, change and individual versus group tenacity, are still as relevant in our current political and social climate as it has ever been. Although the restaging of this musical does not bring new ideas to our collective and artistic conversation, the lessons of the past are worthy of repetition.

Simon Burke is excellent as Edna. He plays the plus-size mother with flair and grace, matching the energies of his co-stars and shining amongst the over 600 supporting cast. A consummate performer, Burke playfully banters with his on-stage husband, Wilbur, played flawlessly by Wayne Scott Kermond, and brings a light-hearted, personal touch to an otherwise highly choreographed and tightly rehearsed production. Highest praise must go to Barry Conrad for his portrayal of Seaweed J. Stubbs, the smooth moving son of Motormouth Maybelle, activist for equal rights and the end of segregation. His performance was outstanding. This man can sing, dance, act and does so with effortless charm and swank.

The design of the arena show by Josh McIntosh was big, bold, vibrant and simple. Bright and big wigs and costumes, including the rather hilarious white, inflatable, Michelin-man style jumpsuits, were wonderful to see under the bright and bold technicolour lighting design of Trudy Dalgleish. Specialised lighting gobos broke up the vast stage into more intimate scenes, and the corner entrances were used well with the very large choreographed dance sequences. I was extremely impressed with the lack of congestion, and how well the 600 strong ensemble moved in and out of the space.

As so often with this venue, the vastness of the stage meant that many patrons in side seats missed important scenes, particularly with Edna and Wilbur, as the cast played to the downstage front and missed many opportunities to open up scenes to the side. Another issue faced in this overly vast arena format is that the characters are too far away for any subtlety to be read in their expression. The characters, therefore, appear cartoonish and rather stereotyped, and had to rely on large physical movement and vocal strength to spark emotion in the audience. The energy was not matched by all of the cast, and characters with a comedic edge had more luck, and ability, in reaching the audience.

The effect of having an extremely large supporting cast, made up of Adelaide's young performers, was quite amazing. Having so many synchronised bodies moving to snappy, 'ear-worm' songs was definitely worth buying a ticket for. The sound of hundreds of teenagers actually screaming for Corny Collins added an extra energy and realism to the show that could not have been achieved with recorded sound. And the young performers were absolutely flawless. Every time I looked at an individual performer they were fluently dancing, acting and singing along with the show, faces engaged, exuding confidence and finesse. I'd flick my eyes to the next performer; perfect once again. It was a proud moment for a lot of parents in the audience but also a proud moment for ordinary patrons who were witness to the "Big, Fat, Arena Spectacular" of Hairspray in Adelaide.

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