The prospect of the return of Hairspray the Musical filled Mrs Chrisparkle and me with delight. We loved the original show in 2008 with Michael Ball and Leanne Jones, and remember leaving the theatre energised and upbeat. The original film, too, is a heap of fun, with the amazing Divine as Edna – casting that thereby required all future Ednas to be played by a bloke. One quick check of the creative team for this revival tells you you’re in the safest of hands, with Leicester’s Paul Kerryson directing, top-of-his-game Drew McOnie choreographing, and a cast of huge talent. So it was no surprise that the Derngate was packed to the rafters with an almost full house on Monday night for its first performance in Northampton.
I’m sure you know the story, but in a nutshell: “pleasingly plump” Tracy Turnblad longs to be a TV star but she has neither the figure nor the middle class background to break into the big time. When she tries to audition for Corny Collins’ music and dance show she comes up against the ruthless producer Velma whose sole ambition is to get her pretty but obnoxious daughter Amber into the limelight, primarily by fixing her to win the “Miss Teenage Hairspray” title. But Tracy’s natural vivacity and talent shine through and when Corny sees her perform he insists on her being in the show. We’re talking 1962 Baltimore, and there’s racial segregation everywhere you look. Prim parents, like that of Tracy’s best mate Penny, refer to “race music”, and the prejudiced Velma has an “all-white” policy for the show. One day a month is “Negro day”, when the black performers are allowed to take to the stage – no other time. Tracy tries to use her new influence to break down this barrier by organising a protest march for all the dancers on the show to demand full integration between the races. When the march gets out of hand, the police are called, they’re all arrested, but “the new Elvis”, Link, sneaks into the prison and helps Tracy escape so that she can get back to the studio just in time to win “Miss Teenage Hairspray”. In the end, segregation becomes integration in what turns out to be a very moral story where good wins through and evil is defeated.
There’s so much to enjoy this production, and a good night was had by all despite some technical problems, no doubt related to the fact that this was its first night on tour. Given that it’s Paul Kerryson in charge, perhaps surprisingly the majority of problems are down to the staging. We were in the middle of row F of the stalls – and I spoke to a friend who was in the side stalls in Row K – and we both had the same problem: you can see far too much of what’s going on in the wings. Now, you might expect that if you’re right on the edges of the seating plan; and sometimes a little hint of what’s going on is quite exciting from a stagecraft point of view. But this level of movement was distracting. The problem is that the side drapes don’t hang low enough to mask what’s going on – maybe because of the two platforms that get wheeled on and off at the sides, representing the Turnblads’ house and Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop. The band are also positioned at the back of the set, which means from time to time they are in full view, normally something that would lend an added, exciting dynamic; but during the course of the evening I looked up at them occasionally and when some band members were not playing their instruments, they simply looked bored! So that really didn’t work. I also felt that the scenery representing the prison was distracting, as it flew in and out of position just a bit too often; and I also didn’t realise that the place where Seaweed and his pals hung out was meant to be a record shop; I thought it was just a street.
Hopefully the technical issues will get quickly ironed out – there were, for example, too many moments when actors were performing unlit, and where the pauses between scenes were too long. Fortunately, the cast coped with the problems admirably; particular kudos to Jon Tsouras for deftly switching from hand-held mic to no mic and back again without a flicker of an eyebrow. I must say though this is the first time I’ve ever seen a dancer (no names, no pack drill) come on stage in a pair of trousers at least three sizes too small for him, unzipped and unbuttoned up at the top, do a few moves and then run off, not to reappear for the rest of the scene. What on earth happened there?! Had he put on someone else’s trousers? Despite that, I thought Takis’ costume design for the show was first rate, providing a stage billowing with primary colours and creating some enormously snazzy shirts and jackets of which I was thoroughly jealous.
Talking of dancing, and dancers, this is one area in which this production absolutely excels. Drew McOnie’s choreography is sparky and funny, and reaches out to the audience with a huge pair of open arms and welcomes us in. He creates dances that manage to tell a story, even within the context of a big show number, in a way that other choreographers would just create something that looks pretty. It was his choreography for the song “Run and Tell That” that was so instantly captivating and that matched perfectly the creativity of his dancers, that made you feel you were watching something really special. The whole dance ensemble are fantastic, but amongst them there is one Layton Williams, whom we saw in Lord of the Flies, who is just an amazing dancer, and for whom I predict Really Great Things.
Of course the role of Edna is really larger-than-life, and Tony Maudsley has some very big shoes to fill when you consider other performers who have taken the role before him. When he first appeared on stage, I was completely thrown as he was the spitting image of my Nan in the 1970s. Even their gravelly voices were similar. He plays Edna more demurely than I would have expected; very respectful of her maternal role, and not remotely playing up the drag aspect. I was unsure of this interpretation at first, but it worked particularly well with the show-stopping “You’re Timeless to Me”, as his surprisingly refined and elegant Edna provides a great contrast with Peter Duncan’s cheeky-chappie portrayal of Wilbur. With Mr Duncan cutting a diminutive figure in comparison to Mr Maudsley’s statuesque Edna, it was a bit like Tigger romancing Winnie-the-Pooh’s granny. I didn’t expect to have to say this, but I still think he could brighten up (maybe even camp up) his more glamorous appearances; in particular his final entrance didn’t quite have a sufficiently outrageous wow factor for me. Mr Duncan is, however, pitch-perfect throughout, conveying just the right mix of parental kindliness and general facetiousness that you would expect a joke shop proprietor-father to have.
Freya Sutton is a great Tracy; full of teenager enthusiasm, hopelessly infatuated with pop stars and delightfully open-minded and unprejudiced. She sings with great strength and charm and can turn in some wicked dance moves too. There’s a cracking performance from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle, putting all her heart and soul (and then some more) into that big rousing number; and a funny yet very strong musical performance from Monique Young as Tracy’s dorky friend Penny, who graduates from Ugly Duckling to Beautiful Swan in front of our eyes. Jon Tsouras cuts a charismatic dash as Corny Collins, nicely massaging away the fixed grin from his face whenever the camera is turned off, and there’s excellent support from both Adam Price and Tracey Penn as the two “authority figures”. Lauren Stroud is a splendidly smart-arsey Amber, the perfect representation of what you become when you’re spoilt rotten as a child. I thought Ashley Gilmour rather underplayed the role of Link Larkin; I’m not sure I could see him as the next Elvis, to be honest, and you couldn’t really tell when he was being a louse and when a hero. There was an unintentionally hilarious moment when he came through the audience to rescue Tracy from prison. Waving his torch in all directions he called out “where are you?” to which an audience member replied “here!” and we all had to stifle our giggles.
I always love it when I see A Star Is Born performance – and this show has one in the form of Dex Lee as Seaweed. We’ve already seen him once in the incredible Scottsboro Boys but in Hairspray he absolutely shines and confirms he is a brilliant song and dance man. His voice, his dancing and his enormously likeable stage presence make for a winning combination; and he and Monique Young made a really charming young couple together. There were also brilliant contributions from the three Dynamite girls, Vanessa Fisher, Aiesha Pease and Bobbie Little. They looked gorgeous, sang like a dream and danced their little socks off.
Of course the show has lots of amazingly entertaining moments, none more exhilarating than its brilliant finale – You Can’t Stop the Beat – which, as Mrs C pointed out, is worth the ticket fee alone, and which guarantees you leave the theatre in the bounciest of moods. It also has some hard-hitting and poignant moments where it exposes the racial segregation system of the time, and its occasional uncomfortable scenes stand out as moments of telling dramatic tension. Once it’s taken a couple of days to bed in this is going to be a really slick show – fingers crossed for no more technical failures! It’s on a pretty massive UK tour right round to next May, so if you’re local to Malvern, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester, Wimbledon, Bradford, Southampton, Ipswich, Brighton, Birmingham, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Sheffield, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Inverness, Bristol, Woking, Cardiff, Norwich, Milton Keynes, Canterbury or Stoke, I’m sure you’ll have a great time!