Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 23rd May, 2013
Originally a film by the ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters, Hairspray might seem unlikely material for a feel-good musical, accessible to and enjoyed by a mass audience, but such is the genius of this adaptation, one wonders whether other examples of Waters’s oeuvre might suit similar treatment. Cry-Baby is the obvious choice but I would dearly love to see Pink Flamingos or Desperate Living: the Musical.
The show is almost unrelentingly upbeat. Set in 1962, it has a score by Mark Shaiman (with lyrics by the composer and Scott Whitman) in which the tunes keep coming. Every song is incredibly catchy, using the pop aesthetic of the era in a manner similar to Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors. It opens with Good Morning, Baltimore, a scene-setter that introduces our protagonist (an energetic Freya Sutton) Tracy Turnblad. Her self-awareness and the mocking tone of the lyrics are charming (drunks, rats and flashers are the picturesque sights that greet Tracy on her way to school), parodying such rousing numbers as Oh What A Beautiful Morning. We are being shown a stylised representation of a time and place and we lap it up right from the get-go.
The stage is hardly ever devoid of bright young things bopping and bouncing around. It’s infectious.
Mark Benton (Waterloo Road, the Nationwide ads) is a revelation as Tracy’s massively overweight mother Edna. He even looks like role-originator Divine in his early, dowdier scenes. He brings gracefulness to Edna’s movements and capitalises on the lower register of his voice for comic effect. The spirit of John Waters shines through: the outsiders, the freaks, those who are different, marginalised, and shunned by ‘decent’ society, are presented in a way that celebrates and empowers them. The show is often lauded for its social commentary on racial segregation but the theme of body issues and self-esteem is just as strong.
Just like the fat jokes keep coming, some characters are openly racist in a blatant but casual way. Worst offenders are the Von Tussles – a TV producer and her obnoxious daughter. These two represent the institutionalised prejudice of the day (how lovely it would be to say this no longer exists in this day and age…) Wendy Somerville (standing in for Lucy Benjamin) is deliciously bitchy as Velma, but she is no match for Tracy and her mother.
As the plot develops, the catchy tunes keep coming. “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now” is joyous, but “I Can Hear The Bells” is my personal favourite, encapsulating that feeling of love at first sight and planning one’s life together all in a split second, celebrating teenage feelings and gently mocking them in an affectionate way.
Because her hairdo is so big it prevents other students from seeing the blackboard, Tracy is consigned to ‘Special Ed’, where she meets some black kids with whom the system is unable or unwilling to engage. She learns some spicy dance moves that finally secure her a place on the TV dance show of her dreams, and becomes a hit with the viewers. Tracy’s self-esteem is a smack in the pouting face of the media portrayal of conventional beauty, but it is her activism against racial segregation that gets her into trouble with the law.
It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and performed with such verve, you can see why this is sometimes deemed a ‘bubblegum musical’. That phrase does the piece an injustice. More than a look back at less-enlightened times, the show is an all-too timely reminder that there are forces at work (the media in particular) to divide society. As the UK lurches cruelly to the right, and the TV spews out a constant diet of Tory obfuscation and UKIP fuckwittery, it is no wonder that the marginalised and disenfranchised are cracking under pressure.
Freya Sutton is a strong and likeable lead. Luke Striffler is both cool and hot as boyfriend Link, who has moves like Elvis, and learns the error of his selfishness. Josh Piterman is a smooth Corny Collins, the cheesy TV presenter at odds with his producer, and Sandra Marvin gives a storming performance as sassy DJ Motormouth Maybelle – her “I Know Where I’ve Been” stops the show. Marcus Collins brings humour and dignity to Seaweed J Stubbs, impressing with his vocals and his moves – clearly musical theatre is where he belongs rather than on a mediocre TV talent show.
Paul Rider is Tracy’s big-hearted father Wilbur Turnblad. His duet with Edna (“You’re Timeless To Me”) is sweet and funny. The actors’ rapport and enjoyment is evident in this simply-staged moment that brings the house down.
The main cast is supported by a chorus of young dancers and singers that keeps the energy pouring off the stage. By the time we reach the show’s exhilarating finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” everyone’s on their feet and dancing along.
A thoroughly entertaining production, non-stop fun with a serious heart, Hairspray is one of my all-time favourites, and it’s heartening to see a tour of such high quality doing the rounds.