Music: Marc Shaiman. Lyrics: Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman. Book: Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan. Australian School of the Arts, Sheldon College, Brisbane. Redlands Performing Arts Centre. May, 2019.
It's an interesting conundrum - how do you stage a musical in which a key plot is about African-American civil rights, when your cast consists overwhelmingly of young Caucasian performers?
It's what I pondered as I walked into Hairspray, the 20th anniversary musical production of the Australian School of the Arts, a specialised program run through Sheldon College, a private school on Brisbane's bayside.
Clearly it's not a new challenge - Hairspray, like so many Broadway favourites - does regular rounds on high school musical circuits, so the original creative team of Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who adapted Jon Waters' cult film for the stage) have included a note in the program about how they address that challenge.
Blackface is of course forbidden - but they don't want the musical and its message of diversity, inclusion and love to be missed if particular areas don't have enough students of colour. "We also realised to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the colour of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a 'politically correct'" one," they write.
So the Sheldon College design team (also consisting primarily of students) has got around this by putting most of the white cast members (particularly the racist characters like Velma and Amber Von Tussle) in very blonde wigs and light-coloured clothing; while those playing African-Americans simply rock their natural hairstyles and wear bright colours.
For the most part, the conceit works well, even if hearing the word "Negro" used so often by white people is somewhat jarring. The word is faithful to 1962, the year in which the story is set; to not have it there would be failing to acknowledge the language used to oppress for generations.
All that said, the production is a rocking two hours of colour and movement of a standard beyond your typical high school musical. The Redlands Performing Arts Centre is a big stage, but this huge cast fill it with wonderful voices and highly competent dancing, as well as the clever use of screen imagery to set the mood and tone during numbers.
The women on stage in particular are standouts: Ellen Warner makes for an endearing Tracy Turnblad, the idealistic teen desperate to join a local Baltimore dancing show and hopefully draw the attention of her crush, lead singer Link Larkin.
Warner's voice is strong and clear in numbers such as "Good Morning Baltimore" and "I Can Hear the Bells", and while Tracy's boundless optimism has the danger of become grating, Warner never crosses that line. She's a joy to watch - although I suspect she had the help of padding to achieve Tracy's famous plumpness.
Similarly, April Beak as her main foil Amber, the self-serving lead dancer on the Corny Collins' show, plays the villain brilliantly, with a sharp vocal to match. Mikayla Yates as her mother Velma is the biggest baddie, overtly racist, sizeist and generally unpleasant. It's a tough role to get right; you have to commit to the awfulness and pettiness. Yates does a great job, with her soaring rendition of "Miss Baltimore Crabs" a highlight.
Special kudos too to Kyla Johnson as Tracy's ditzy bestie Penny Pingleton, who rocks her duets, is as cute as a button and practically a dead ringer for Amanda Bynes, who played the character in the 2007 movie musical; and Crispin Schwartz as Motormouth Maybelle, the DJ on the Corny Collins show, civil rights activist and mother of two of the African-American dancers featured on "Negro Day", Seaweed and Inez (both ably played by sensational dancers Quinn Chambers and Angelina Bourke).
Schwartz blazes through "I Know Where I've Been", an ode to the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. There's a touch of awkwardness watching this; but I suspect its full potential would only ever truly be reached when seeing African-American singers perform it. As it is, background images provide an excellent historical reminder for the audience, and no doubt doing this production would have introduced many of those onstage to the persecution and bile of that era (and how it continues in other ways). If the musical process has educated more of our already pretty savvy young about ways in which they can make positive change in the world, then it's doing a great job.
It's a tribute to the well-written female characters that the most watchable man onstage was Ethan Schofield, who played Tracy's anxious mother Edna Turnblad, the character traditionally played by a man in drag. Ethan's singing voice was not the strongest, but it was totally in character, and his comedic skill lifted the character to a show highlight, without ever being condescending. His second-act duet with Joseph O'Byrne as Edna's adoring husband Wilbur, "You're Timeless To Me" was a clear audience favourite, met with rapturous applause.
Jean-Luc Fuller as Link Larkin played off his gangly physique well, turning Link from Zac Efron hunk into a kind-hearted theatre geek who finds his strength by following Tracy's example. Daniel Fayad as TV host Corny Collins seemed smooth beyond his years.
There was some imperfect choreography at times, leading to some clutter onstage - hard to avoid in a show with more than 60 performers. The decision to put Tracy's stint in a jail cell in the centre back of stage meant we didn't see much of her face, as she sat with her back half-turned to the audience in dim light. It was a sad loss as it was a defining moment for her and Link's relationship and had it been possible to bring the setting forward, might have had more punch.
However, the entire cast brought it home with You Can't Stop the Beat, the victorious integration of black and white dancers, and Tracy's ultimate win in the dance competition, in love and in beating (and educating) her enemy Amber.
The song is a killer closing number and the cast nail it from start to finish. It was clear the amount of time and work that went into just that final section shows how seriously the school and students take their love of the arts.
Many of these kids onstage will finish school this year - a world of study and work in the arts industry awaits some of them; for others it will stand them in good stead for careers in other creative industries. I hope they all appreciate how fortunate they are to have such a high-level professional opportunity in a full lyric-style theatre. The real world of the arts isn't always so plush. But if they continue the work ethic they all showed in "Hairspray", they have a very good head start.