Harvest Rain’s Hairspray opened to a lively and appreciative audience after a similarly successful preview the night before. It seemed like the sheer energy of this production incited the audience to stand and applaud.
The large cast features some impressive performances in lead and cameo roles, and a consistently energetic performance from the well-rehearsed ensemble of dancers and singers.
This is a highly choreographed show; Director Tim O’Connor freely admits in his program notes that no one spent more time on this show than the Choreographer, Callum Mansfield. His hard work shows, as does his talent working with a large chorus to create interesting and lively dance sequences. His experience shows in the maturity of his choreography, giving consideration beyond dance-steps to the use of movement and patterns to great effect and making clever choices for story-telling and humour.
Clearly O’Connor, Mansfield and Musical Director, Maitlohn Drew, have worked closely together to create a cohesive feel and concept for this production.
The heart of this show is in the music and that ‘beat’; it’s infectious from the start and drives the story right through to the bows. Drew led a great band which produced a huge sound for its numbers, and yet was sufficiently subtle when needed. The musical performance was clean and well mixed for the most part, however the off-stage chorus of singers were at times a little too prominent in the mix, especially during on-stage solos.
The white multi-level set was used to good effect as a cyclorama for all the colour and movement of the cast and lighting design. Good use was also made of the stagnant set to define different spaces, occasionally adorned with fly-in signs and furnishing. The simplicity of the physical design meant the show had good flow-on between scenes with no lengthy scene-changes to disrupt the action. The design elements of the production all came together well and commendation should also go to the long list of costumiers who clothed the numerous cast.
The strongest element of this production is the casting. The actors so aptly cast in their roles and clearly well-rehearsed present their characters with vibrancy and a high standard of performance that truly bring this show to life.
Casey McCollow carries the central character of Tracey Turnblad with an energy that appears to infect every other performer she interacts with. Be it a product of her inherent talent or the various training listed in her bio, she exhibits the traits of a consummate performer with a voice that handles the big-sing of Tracey with ease and combines heart and purpose with brilliant comedic timing. She also has the dance moves and style to stand out with Tracey’s signature moves, easily convincing us of her character’s most defining trait as a joyful, trend-setting dancer. All in all, Casey’s performance is a joy to watch.
Similarly, Liz Buchanan is vocally impressive and her performance spot-on in the role of Velma von Tussle, the anti-integration ex-beauty queen; her portrayal somehow reminiscent of Cruella de Vil. Despite the unlikable nature of the character, I very much enjoyed her performance, and certainly it is a shame we don’t hear Buchanan sing more throughout the show. She held the stage and her poise through a minor technical issue on opening and made an otherwise relatively inconsequential musical reprise a highlight of the show.
The most impressive vocal highlight is saved for Act II: Rachel Dunham’s rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been. Dunham’s sincerity and rich vocals soar through the show to the climax of this number. It was pleasing to see that the delivery of this number had been left quite still and simple in comparison to the movement of much of the show, allowing the song to speak for itself. Its final notes raised an enthusiastic, emotional response from the audience that could have well covered the scene change, and I would urge the production team to allow the cast to exit a little more gracefully in this rapturous moment.
Of course, Harvest Rain’s coup was to have Simon Gallaher on board to play Edna Turnblad, the ‘dame role’ as it would be known in pantomime, Tracey’s mother. Initially a reclusive ironing lady, Edna is encouraged and inspired by Tracey and we see her bloom throughout the show. Gallaher’s performance mirrors this change with a humble start and working up to Edna’s big moments beautifully, just in time for a cheeky and very entertaining duet in the second act, (You’re) Timeless to Me. It’s a credit to Gallaher that he shares the stage so graciously and according to director, Tim O’Connor’s program notes, has given of himself as a mentor to the rest of the company. There appears to be none of the usual evidence of stunt-casting here, with Gallaher fitting seamlessly into his role within the production as a whole.
Impressive performances also from Heidi Enchelmaier as the bubbly Penny Pingleton, Tod Strike bringing smooth vocals to the role of Corny Collins and Dakota Striplin as the ever-so-cool and rather self-aware heart-throb Link. Some very entertaining moments also from Astin Blaik, as Amber von Tussle. Blaik not only hit the mark with her vocals, dance and character, but she and Buchanan worked well together, even if at times they looked more like sisters than mother-and-daughter.
Notable performances from the ensemble include strong character and vocal moments from Jessica Papst in particular her brief cameo as a jail warden in the opening of Act II; and among the Council of dancers on the Corny Collins Show, some cute moments from Brenda played by Skylar Delphinus and impressive dance and character from George Canham and Steven Bishop.
Hairspray is an energetic, vibrant and joyful production, but of course it has a moral message at its heart. To quote its Director: “Hairspray is about tolerance, setting aside prejudice and embracing each other as equals, and I think that message is as poignant for us today as it was back in the 1960’s.” In this I agree, and hope that you will enjoy the show as much for its toe-tapping music and energy, as for its lessons of tolerance and equality.
Houses will fill quickly for this short season, so I suggest booking soon to catch this latest Harvest Rain feast of colour and movement.
Hairspray plays at The Playhouse, QPAC until 1 July.
For more information and to book online www.harvestrain.com.au or call QTIX on 136 246.