As soon as word got out that an Australian production of movie-turned-musical-turned-movie again Hairspray was in the works, audiences and industry insiders alike were abuzz with rumours about exactly who would get cast in the pivotal roles of mother-daughter combo Tracy and Edna Turnblad.
Tracy, a self-described ‘pleasantly plump’ teenager in 1960s Baltimore whose irrepressible personality helps to end racial integration in the city, is a dream role for any young plus-sized actress, and launched the careers of both Ricki Lake and Nikki Blonsky in the respective 1988 and 2007 films.
The role is traditionally given to a virtual unknown, and so it is in Australia, with 22-year-old Gippsland performer Jaz Flowers landing her first lead.
Casting the role of her mother, Edna, was an altogether trickier proposition: would the producers follow John Waters’ lead in casting drag icon Divine as the original Edna by choosing an established drag performer? Or would they ‘go Hollywood’ and secure a big-name actor with no previous drag experience to emulate John Travolta’s kitschy role in the screen remake?
“I think it’s so brave of them to put a well-known drag performer into the role, as opposed to a celebrity or whatever. There’s something about having an actual drag performer in the role that really helps to retain that John Waters feel,” Sydney drag icon Trevor Ashley said during a break in rehearsals for the show.
“I love John Waters, and I just love that I get to follow in Divine’s footsteps.”
Ashley said he was already feeling a maternal bond between him and Flowers.
“It’s quite hilarious — we do call each other mummy and daughter. She’s an amazing talent with a spectacular voice — she’s belting her tits off at the moment downstairs.”
Rounding out the cast is an experienced bunch of theatre performers including So You Think You Can Dance winner Jack Chambers as heartthrob Link Larkin, Grant Piro as Ashley’s on-stage husband Wilbur Turnblad, and Marney McQueen as the glamorous Velma Von Tussle.
“I think it’s one of the best-cast musicals Australia’s seen in a long time, because they didn’t bow to celebrity and just cast ‘names’.
Instead, they cast really experienced theatre performers like the fabulous Marney McQueen,” Ashley said.
“We think it’s the most hilarious thing that we two cabaret performers are in a big musical together again [the pair performed together in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert during its Australian run].
“And it’s so wonderful to work with Grant Piro and to create a realistic little family unit with him and Jaz. Considering it’s such a cartoony, over-the-top musical, I think we’ve found a lot of heart in our portrayal of this family.”
Is there any off-stage chemistry brewing between Mr and Mrs Turnblad?
“He is sadly straight,” Ashley sighed. “We are making each other laugh a lot though.”
Directed by David Atkins, the colourful production is choreographed by So You Think You Can Dance judge Jason Coleman. Ashley said Coleman’s ‘complex, mental’ choreography would even include some energetic routines for Edna.
“Edna is actually dancing in this one more than I think she’s ever danced before. Wilbur and Edna become Fred and Ginger at one point, with a lot of lifts and throws.”
Many of Ashley’s best-loved creations to date are his pitch-perfect impersonations of various divas — Liza, Judy, Whitney. If she’s a gay icon and has battled an addiction to booze and pills, chances are Ashley can mimic her to a tee.
Has he pulled from any of his previous impersonations in forming the character of Edna, or is she a whole new woman?
“She’s definitely a big new creation for me. After doing so many impersonations, it’s great to be creating somebody new for people.
“I’ve really enjoyed creating this over-the-top neurotic Jewish mother who’s locked herself away in her house for a long time. Out of everyone in the show, I think she has the most growth and the biggest journey to go on.
“Tracy has got the confidence and her inhibitions about her weight are gone from the beginning of the show, whereas for Edna it’s so much harder to feel good about herself. It’s such a big journey for her to go from not leaving the house to showing off, looking fabulous on national television.”
With no official end date set for Hairspray’s Australian run and the expectation that it could go on to other states, Ashley could be frocking up as Edna Turnblad for a long time to come. But he’s no stranger to the rigorous demands of musical theatre, with more than 600 shows under his belt during his time in Priscilla.
“It is really tiring, and the marathon of eight shows per week is huge. I do find it tough at times, but you find your own pace. Any performer who does a show a long time would tell you the same thing — take Lucy Durack, she’s been doing Wicked since about 1812!
“I do love doing it though, and I think it’s going to be an absolute joy to be Edna in front of an audience every night.”
info: Hairspray opens at the Lyric Theatre on June 23. Visit www.hairspraythemusical.com.au for more.