If you’ve not seen the film or the musical Hairspray is a story set in run down Baltimore within the civil rights protests of the 60’s where Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, is on a mission to follow her dreams. She sets out to dance her way onto a segregated national TV show. Tracy’s audition makes her a local star, gains her quite a few entitled enemies as she uses her new-found fame to fight for equality, struggling with social issues and finding way to enable her family and friends to embrace their diversity. Stuffed with plenty of feel-good messaging around racial, age and female size diversity it’s rooted in a good place, and the songs reflect this uplifting messaging.
The live house band rock the music, never miss a beat, driving this high energy musical to its delightful and very happy every after ending. The cast is electric, with a wide range of singers and dancers and two veteran comics combining their talents to keep the energy high and allow a pretty good range of emotive songs without sliding into smaltz or kitsch. Not easy when it’s all based around a 60’s Hairspray danceathon and is stalked by the louche spirit of John Walters ( not that he’s dead yet..) as Tracey Turnblat is a version of his own younger Baltimore self. But this is cosy Baltimore, and although we get to peek through the froth at some of the troubles of the American civil & racial rights movement in soft focus, it’s about teenage romance, dancing and finding your own way through. Taken like that it works, although occasionally veering off into attempts to ‘make a point’ can grate there’s enough joy in this show to forgive it’s narrative weakness. ( plus it’s a musical ffs). Katie Brace bring smiles with her utterly engaging Tracy, earnestly trouble-making her way and convinces romantically with her crushing on high school hunk Link Larkin (Ross Clifton) who gives an endearing goofy side to this heartthrob role.
With such an experienced cast there’s plenty of stand out moments and this show excels in allowing all of its performers space to shine with their singing, dancing or comedy, Brenda Edwards performance as Motormouth Maybelle singing “I Know Where I’ve Been” is one of best out of a lot of excellent moment, there’s a long of bang to the buck here, which the enthusiastic Brighton audience lapped up. Alex Bourne and Norman Pace as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad shared a lovely end of the pier routine which, with a touch of apparent improvisation, allowed these underwritten roles to shine and share some love, more than a hefty dose of innuendo, which was wonderfully funny and not a straight face in the house.
Check out the full cast info here
To say the audience loved this show would be an understatement, they were on their feet roaring at the end of it, and it’s here that Hairspray gives it’s best, a wholesome, entertaining show, full of cartoon colour and Marc Shaiman’s luminous score (along with happy lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman) stuffed full of jubilant songs such as Good Morning Baltimore and Welcome to the 60s are adored by the audience.
Sets are a little basic for a national tour, but that might be to do with how small the Theatre Royal stage is, but there’s no excuse for dressing your male dancers like that! Although the costumes of the lead players are full on camp sequined delights referencing Bob Mackie, the men’s outfits are some of the least flattering costumes I’ve seen on a lithe dancing cast in some time. A small gripe perhaps, as the dancers more than make up with their electric performances. Each and every one of them delights with their buoyant tight, dynamic moves from Drew McOnie’s touch perfect choreography. It’s a great physical show, with some superb ensemble dance numbers, which keep your head turning from all the interesting action happening on stage and whenever the dancers hit the floor there’s only one place to look – everywhere! The singing cast equally thrill, The three Dynamites in an iconic moment in sequined shimmering dresses and matching high beehives are pure delight, I could have watched them shimmy all night.
Hairspray started in a John Walters fever dream and still contains the celebration of oddness, difference, diversity and community strength at it’s heart, the musical additions add a whole range of theatrical conventions into the mix giving a delightfully odd cavalcade of styles, but this works, mainly because the thrust of the energy behind the musical is relentless and just when you think it may tire or overstep, it changes gear, and pace, although never giving up the full throttle joy, and charms once again.
If you’ve not been out to the theatre for a while, then be assured the Theatre Royal are taking good care of you and step out into the world of Hairspray, where if you breath deeply enough and backcomb hard enough there’s nothing you ain’t capable of.
This show is a delight; audience on their feet cheering at the end and went out into the warm late summer night chattering, buzzing and much happier than when they went in.