Melbourne: Oz indigenous history set with Hairspray

By Megan Anderson

The message from Melbourne is racial tolerance, writes Megan Anderson.

Cle Morgan performs in Hairspray. Photo / Jeff Busby
Cle Morgan performs in Hairspray. Photo / Jeff Busby

"They say if you look in the eyes of a fish and it looks back at you, it's fresh," says tour guide Helen Prohasky. She's a familiar face at Melbourne's bustling and bountiful Queen Victoria Markets, and a fierce advocate for cooking "roo".

I glance at some glassy fish eyes - they glance back - and suddenly I'm not so very hungry after all. So I buy figs stuffed fat with mascarpone, hoping they'll plump me up Hairspray-style.

Anything to keep alive the spirit of the latest musical offering from Melbourne, Australia's very own version of the global hit musical, which has got me under its spell.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, unfashionably plus-sized optimist Tracy Turnblad dances her way on to hit The Corny Collins Show - see where lots of stuffed figs can get you - captivates teen heart-throb Link Larkin, and sets about integrating all sizes and colours of people into the previously slim-whites-only TV show.

Sounds like every plump teenager's dream.

It's based on a cult-classic 1988 film, Hairspray, which made its Broadway debut in 2002 before a 2007 film remake (starring Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta and Zac Efron).

The entire thing is a candy-coloured, witty champion of underdogs, minorities and just about anyone else who ever failed to get a fair crack of the whip.

Directed by Australia's David Atkins, the production uses ceiling-high LED walls to create an astounding visually-laden world, where both actors and screens propel the show into technicolour.

Pursuing my version of the dream, I track down Hairspray lead Jaz Flowers at Melbourne's Princess Theatre. Inside, ushers lounge in doorways and I play it cool. For 22-year-old Flowers, Hairspray is her platform to the big-time. Tracy Turnblad is her first lead role in a major musical production.

"How long does it take to do your hair?" I ask coyly. Flowers, in full glittering costume, leans in conspiratorially.

"It's a wig!" she whispers, explaining how only 10 to 15 minutes of prep time is required and "on it goes like a helmet!"

Living up to the role of Tracy is not so easy a feat as a wigful of hair, however. There's such a bursting of joy in both the character and Flowers' performance, maintaining the mood is a challenge in itself.

"I must admit, something that I keep saying to myself [or] on the phone to my parents is, 'I just didn't realise how much energy it takes to be happy all the time'," she says. "It's not just because [Tracy's] happy - she's just so enthusiastic and energetic all the time, and I didn't comprehend how much energy that was going to take from my body. But it gets easier with every run that we do."

What's interesting about Hairspray is how much Australians love it - apparently one in 10 own the 2007 film - and the show looks like following suit.

The premiere drew gushing media reviews and a bobbing ovation of beehives and quiffs, which shows what happens when you give your audience a dress theme and free hairspray.

Director David Atkins thinks it's the message of the musical, combined with a feverish Motown score, which holds such appeal. "The underlying message affects people," says Atkins. "The idea is not about stereotypes - the leading lady's overweight, the mother's played by a man - it's about racial integration and racial tolerance.

"It's not just a fluffy musical. It's got great music and it's funny and it's bright, but it also has a message."

It's also a message that resonates strongly in Australia, where it took a 1967 referendum to grant its indigenous peoples the same rights as its colonisers.

In fact, an inspiration for the rhetoric of the Aboriginal civil rights movement was the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which the musical so carefully weaves into its storyline.

Appropriately, the Melbourne Museum's Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre is currently tracing the history of the Australian movement in two captivating temporary exhibitions.

While 20 Years: Bold. Black. Brilliant showcases 20 years of triumphs for Australia's longest-running indigenous theatre company, From Little Things Big Things Grow tells the inspiring tale of Aboriginal activism, with pillars of "ordinary extraordinary" figures dotted around the darkened exhibition.

Back in the hide-and-seek grid of CBD Melbourne, the history of the place is firmly etched on its sprawling buildings and iconic graffitied laneways.

Fiona Sweetman knows these streets, and the people on them as well as Tracy Turnblad knows and loves 1960s Baltimore. Having led walking tours of Melbourne for over six years, and a local herself, she knows the importance of showing visitors the human side of the city.

"It's important to show that it's friendly and you know peoples' names. It's an icebreaker," she says, floating down Melbourne's historic 1869 Royal Arcade, despite two monstrous black-bearded statues (Gog and Magog) glaring down from its walls. "Sometimes big cities can feel really intimidating."

I have to agree with this - particularly after Sweetman's familiarity with staff at chocolate shop Koko Black secures us powdery-rich Belgian truffles. It's easy to feel you're channelling Hairspray while eating and smiling stupidly down those streets with all that sun shining, and all those lanes passing.

But, then, it might have just been Melbourne the whole time.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Pacific Blue has regular flights to Melbourne and also offers Hairspray packages.

What to do: Hairspray is running indefinitely at Princess Theatre. Ticket prices are A$50-$145, book at ticketek.com.au.

* Queen Victoria Market is open Tuesday to Sunday. Tour bookings at qvm.co.au.

* The exhibitions 20 years: Bold. Black. Brilliant and From Little Things Big Things Grow run until November 7 at Melbourne Museum's Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre. The museum is open daily 10am-5pm.

* Hidden Secrets Walking Tours is on the web at hiddensecretstours.com.

Further information: For more information visit visitmelbourne.com.

Megan Anderson saw Hairspray with help from Tourism Victoria.

- NZ Herald

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