Book: Thomas Meehan
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Director: Paul Kerryson
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
Hairspray is one of the most successful new musicals of the 21st century. Based on John Waters’ cult 1988 film, the show opened on Broadway in 2002, ran for over 2,500 performances, and won eight Tony Awards. A new film followed in 2007, while the London production opened in 2008 and was nominated for a record-setting eleven Laurence Olivier Awards. This new touring production pulls out all the stops, and the show looks as glamorous and sounds as glorious as anything in the West End.
Set in Baltimore in 1962, the show follows Tracy Turnblad (Freya Sutton), a teenager who loves to dance and longs to perform on The Corny Collins Show, a popular televised teen dance show. Her determination and huge personality see her achieve her dream, while also winning the heart of the show’s teen idol, Link Larkin (Ashley Gilmour), but she faces prejudice from the show’s bigoted producer, Velma von Tussle (Claire Sweeney), who seeks to remove Tracy from the show due to her fuller figure and opposition to segregation. Meanwhile, unrest is brewing among the dancers who perform on the show’s monthly ‘Negro Day’, and Tracy and her friends join forces with them in a bid to force the television station to feature dancers of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities.
After the recent outrage surrounding the all-white casting of Trevor Nunn’s The Wars of Roses, it is refreshing – although, in 2015, it should be the norm – to see white actors, actors of colour and mixed race actors performing on the same stage. The show handles America’s turbulent racial history in a sensitive (though perhaps rather too sanitised) way, although the dependence of the characters of colour on the white characters for their liberation is an awkward and misguided move from book writer Thomas Meehan. Tracy’s obsession with Link also feels dated, as she forgives his selfish and arrogant behaviour unreservedly, despite his to-ing and fro-ing between her and Amber von Tussle (Lauren Stroud), the show’s lead dancer.
But Hairspray is a big-hearted show with commendable intentions, and the 30-strong cast work phenomenally hard. Vocal performances are superb, particularly from Monique Young as Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s socially awkward best friend, Jon Tsouras as Corny Collins, the dance show’s suave host, and Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle, the brassy host of ‘Negro Day’; Edwards’ performance of showstopper I Know Where I’ve Been is a highlight of the production. Drew McOnie’s dynamic, detailed and delightfully inventive choreography is executed with joy and flair by the talented ensemble, with Layton Williams a particular stand-out for his flawless footwork and magnetic stage presence. There is the occasional dropped accent, and the lack of subtlety in the script results in some rather broad acting, but it is the songs that make this musical, and Shaiman and Wittman have succeeded in writing an eclectic and catchy score packed full of hits. Paul Kerryson directs with pace, while Ben Atkinson leads a skilled eight-piece band, and Paul Moore’s stage designs, along with Takis’ costume designs, conjure up the 1960s in riotous technicolour.
Hairspray is a bright, energetic and wildly fun musical that examines both the possibilities and the restrictions of 1960s America. It is not as hard-hitting as other musicals concerning race, such as Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, but the vibrant performances of the cast, stunning designs, and a superb score render it entertainment of the highest quality.
Photo: Ellie Kurtz | Runs until Saturday 19 September 2015 and on tour