1962, USA in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Capitalist country rife with Communist paranoia. Baltimore, a northern city at the height of ‘White Flight’ to the suburbs, relinquishing much of the inner city to the (25% or so) black population. A time of racial segregation and the inevitable Civil Rights movement, two years before the Act was passed in Congress.
Hardly an era when difference is universally celebrated, particularly amongst the older white generation. Luckily for Tracy Turnblad, a plump white girl with a passion for dancing, the burgeoning breed of teenagers thinks otherwise. And they might just give her a chance…
Hairspray is the story of how, by joining forces, people can tackle discrimination and inequality; the fight may be arduous and drawn out but it is only the people who can truly make a difference. And wow, is this told with the most glorious amount of colour, soul and glitz, which, despite the real and bleak underbelly of the story, is an explosion of love, hope and happiness.
From the moment Freya Sutton, as the optimistic and go-getting Tracy, opens with the well-known ‘Good Morning Baltimore’, we know we’re about to witness two+ hours of unadulterated glee, a no-holds barred riot of beautiful camp, full of songs that, if you didn’t know at the beginning of the show, you’ll certainly be singing for a while to come.
Tracy is determined to get onto the dance Committee of ‘The Corny Collins Show’, a fictionalised weekly TV extravaganza, based on the real life 1960s ‘The Buddy Deane Show’, a Baltimore dance-in for the kids. But not all of the kids. If you’re slim and white and fit into the preferred social ‘norms’ of the day, you might just be in, even if your moves ain’t that great. Fat? Forget it? Black? Well sure, you can come along on ‘Negro Day’, when the white gang won’t be there. However, under the guidance of Tracy and her new breed of friends, including the Elvis-like heart-throb, Links Larkin (Tracy’s eventual love), black Seaweed and his family/folk from the Ghetto, backed up by Tracy’s formidable mother, Edna, loving father, Wilbur, and lifelong best friend, Penny, all of this is about to change.
Paul Kerryson has pulled together a sparklingly good show, so much so that you might not want it to end, so caught up may you be in the spectacle of Drew McOnie’s excellent choreography, as mesmerised as the Bling of Designer Paul Moore’s set will leave you. At times, it’s like being in the audience of a bolder, more vibrant ‘Happy Days’, so alive is the whole performance. This is certainly a full on visual experience and Takis’ wonderfully over the top early 60’s costumes accentuate this larger than life Musical.
Tony Maudsley is Edna Turnblad, a large lady who has not yet realised her dream. Maudsley is everything you’d want from drag: brashness; warmth, fun. S/he teams up well with the seemingly diminutive and definitely talented Peter Duncan (Wilbur) – this pair belongs together, which is particularly evident when they duet in ‘You’re Timeless to Me’. Links (Ashley Gilmour) and Tracy find true love but not as convincingly as the inter-racial couple Penny Pingleton (Monique Young) and Seaweed (Dex Lee), whose on-stage chemistry is by far the strongest of any pairing here and, given the country’s past and the historical importance of their love, maybe it should be.
Claire Sweeney is Velma Von Tussle, the overbearing mother of the ultra-indulged Amber (Lauren Stroud). Both play their parts with sly believability, Sweeney being the villaine of the piece, all that is unsavoury about the USA in times of segregation, and she plays this in a rather understated, sneering way. As Tracy, Sutton is completely lovely to the point of naïveté, but she achieves her goal as actress and character and we are firmly on, nay, BY her side.
But, fittingly, it’s the black actors who steal the show. Dex Lee is outstanding as Seaweed, his dance moves are sublime, funky to the bone. I could watch him for hours. The entire ensemble, by the way, is faultless, bringing a togetherness (and segregation) that is at the very foundation of this production. The girl group, Dynamite, deserve a special mention, Vanessa Fisher, Bobbie Little and Aiesha Pease commanding attention each time they appear, but never more so when they sing the dazzling ‘Welcome to the 60’s’, a number that sees the transformation of Edna from dowdy washer woman to glamour puss. The show-stopper is delivered by Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle, owner of a downtown record shop and host of ‘Negro Day’, in her rendition of the homage to race struggles ‘I know Where I’ve Been’ – this woman has a voice of true depth and power.
Song after song after song is performed with professionalism and an awful lot of fun, held together all the way by a deceptively small and tireless orchestra of eight, under the artful Musical Direction of Liam Dunachie and Orchestral Management of Andy Barnwell.
I loved every moment of this production and I recommend it fully (so does my 9 year old daughter, who was straight on YouTube this morning, eyes barely open, to listen to Hairspray’s closing song’ ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’). Oh my, did I even tell you that, ordinarily, I don’t even much like Musical Theatre? How remarkable is that?
Hairspray us at The Bristol Hippodrome until 12th March