Some shows are like comfort food. When times are tough you have a longing for their reassurance, their positivity, their reminder of the Good Old Days, and their sheer effervescent sense of fun. Hairspray is one such show and is back on the road again with a UK tour and is packing them out at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th February.
Like all the best musicals, this one is deceptively ferocious at heart. Behind its cutesy bubble gum facade is a portrayal of racial prejudice and segregation. Terms like “coloured music” and “negro day” hit you hard and land uncomfortably in the context of an upbeat goofy show, But coming together in the name of music and fun can wipe away injustice, and once the young people start dancing together, it’s unstoppable. You can’t stop the beat, in fact.
You probably know the set-up already: 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.
In 1962 Baltimore there’s racial segregation everywhere, and Velma has an “all-white” policy for the show. 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 racial integration. 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 the coveted title. In what turns out to be a very moral story, good wins through and Velma and Amber are left licking their wounds.
Paul Kerryson’s production first saw light of day at the Leicester Curve a few years back and has the big benefit of Drew McOnie’s choreography, which drives forward the story of the songs just as much as the lyrics do, rather than being a mere attractive accompaniment to them. The dance routines are true to the 1960s era and invested with a terrific physicality and liveliness that’s a joy to watch. You’ve got to be as fit as a fiddle to do justice to this choreography, but the whole cast is up to the task and nail it. Danny Belton’s band are full of zest as they bring out the best of Ben Atkinson’s musical arrangements of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score, and there are plenty of musical highlights that thrill the audience, from the opening ebullience of Good Morning Baltimore, the lyrical insight of Run and Tell That, the heart-warming charm of You’re Timeless to Me to the ultimate finale You Can’t Stop the Beat that sends everyone out into the cold night with joy in their souls, and still has them singing it the next day.
The original film starred Divine as Edna and since then it’s always been a given that she should be played by a bloke in a dress. Not entirely sure why; it just is. For this tour, Edna is played by Alex Bourne, who cuts a very statuesque figure, positively looming over everything and everyone else on stage; I’m surprised he doesn’t get a nosebleed up there. He’s made the (I think) wise decision not to feminise his voice at all, and he’s a great exponent of musical theatre with a terrific stage presence. His/her Wilbur is played by Norman Pace, a big favourite with the audience; emphasising the wide-eyed innocence and buffoonery of the character. In their own little way, Edna and Wilbur are such a force for good; decent, honest, kind, generous people, so we love spending time with them and their endearing little foibles, brought out perfectly in their rendition of You’re Timeless to Me, which had exactly the right amount of fooling around and fourth-wall breaking.
Rebecca Thornhill is absolutely stunning as the vicious Velma, an elegant vision of arrogance and cruelty, often being carried aloft by a group of men as a representation of her effortless superiority. She brings out both the humour and the horror of the character perfectly. And Brenda Edwards, with a voice that could move mountains, returns to reprise her role as Motormouth Maybelle, winning our hearts with a sensational performance of I Know Where I’ve Been that brings the house down.
Hairspray is a show that always gets the best out of its young performers – it’s a perfect place to spot stars of the future. For our performance, understudy Joshua Pearson played Link Larkin, and he was foot- and pitch-perfect all the way through, absolutely getting the character’s blend of stage-arrogance but real life kindness; he did a brilliant job. You can’t take your eyes off Charlotte St Croix whenever she’s onstage as Little Inez, a diminutive powerhouse of attitude and voice. Rebecca Jayne-Davies shows great versatility as the much put-upon Penny Pingleton who blossoms into an assured young woman, and there’s great work from Reece Richards as Seaweed, Jessica Croll as Amber and all the guys and girls of the Ensemble.
But there’s no doubt that the night belongs to Katie Brace as Tracy, in her professional debut. Full of zing and charm, bursting with personality, terrific singing and dancing and wholly believable in a role where it would be so easy to go way over the top into pantomime. She’s a complete ray of sunshine and definitely a star of the future.
It’s impossible not to be wowed by this show and carried away with its upbeat vibe. It’s not like Mrs Chrisparkle to be the first on her feet with an ovation but there was no holding her back last night. A night of genuine warmth, fun and masses of feelgood factor. Hairspray is alive and well and living in Northampton, and it would be a crime to miss it!
Production photos by Mark Senior