Packemin Productions once again proves itself as a vital part of the greater Sydney theatre scene with its newest show – a staging of Hairspray over at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta. The accessibility of theatre to people living outside the city or its immediate surrounds is immensely important, and Packemin is doing great work in bringing musical theatre with a professional working ethos to a community setting.
Hairspray is a really strong programming choice for Packemin and Riverside – with their amateur/professional performance model, the show manages to be both a reflection of the community and a demonstration of high musical theatre standards. The ensemble cast is diverse and plucked right from the amateur theatre community, and that creates an atmosphere of togetherness and ownership in the audience. Riverside always turns out supportive, welcoming crowds, and Hairspray on opening night was absolutely no exception.
One of the most fun shows of the past fifteen years, Hairspray – based on the high-camp John Waters film – is well-known for its reliably successful Shaiman/Wittman 60’s inspired musical style. Winner of the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Book, and Score, this is the tale of plucky Tracy Turnblad who wants to dance and ends up changing the world (or, her world – Baltimore variety television – which is sort of the same thing when you’re a teenager) is about civil rights, love, acceptance, and tolerance – of the self, and of the other. And it also kind of makes you want to dance in your seat.
Packemin understands that urge and has distilled the show to its sharpest, boppiest peak possible. It moves at a cracking pace and the musical numbers are bursting with life, with choreography that fills the stage and excites with its raw energy. Led by Jessica Rookeward as Tracy – who is astonishingly only sixteen and already a force of nature on stage – she is raucous, relentlessly positive, and a little ribald, and it really works. Her love interest Link Larkin (Christopher Glynn) is reliably cardboard as the non-threatening interest of every teenage dream, and his girlfriend Amber von Tussle (Alyssa Wilkins) is a cartoon villain, but adorable about it, and delivers a strong comic performance with a winning smile.
Vocally, Jessica Rookeward’s Tracy shines, but her well-met detention buddy Seaweed (Atunaisa Lasalosi) is just as good; the catalyst for Tracy’s foray into the world of protest, he is charming, affable, and exceedingly watchable – no wonder the wonderfully zany Penny Pingleton (Mikayla Rose Williams) falls for him: who wouldn’t? The next young star to watch in this production is Ayanda Dladla. Impossibly tiny in the role as Little Inez, Seaweed’s younger sister, she has a fearsome voice and endless charisma. One can only hope she’ll be playing the title role in Packemin’s next outing, Annie.
The adults are probably having the most fun on stage. Jon English is headlining the show as legendary drag role Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, and in his scene work he reminds us all why he’s so adored: he’s so funny. He’s a fussy, believable mother, and while he stumbled over his lines a couple of times, he worked as fast on his feet as ever, and won the audience right back (if he had indeed lost them in the first place, which is debatable).
The formidable Wayne Scott Kermond is a great scene-partner for English; the onstage couple’s duet, “(You’re) Timeless to Me” was a chance for these two lovable hams to play schtick, indulge in physical comedy, and it was a pleasure to watch. Wilbur is a role that suits Kermond down to the ground.
Cle Morgan reprises the role of Motormouth Maybelle from the recent Melbourne/Sydney Hairspray tour, and the smaller stage suits her well. Her crucial number “I Know Where I’ve Been” is an intimate, heartfelt affair.With the quick wit and sheer earnestness that makes Hairspray come alive, Packemin has created a solidly and shamelessly fun production. Neil Gooding has, once again, delivered a show with exactly the tone and feel required for its performance and audience alike to have a thoroughly enjoyable experience.