Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 19th October, 2021
Based on the 1988 film by self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this exuberant musical is doing the rounds again. Admittedly, the source material is Waters’s most mainstream movie, but writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan retain much of the flavour of the original, especially the outlandish cast of characters. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the show now but each time I’m struck by how brilliant it all is.
It’s 1962 and teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose heart is even bigger than her dress size, auditions to be on the local hip TV show. She witnesses the injustice of segregation in her hometown of Baltimore and unlike most people, goes all out to do something about it. Making her professional debut in the role is Katie Brace and she’s absolutely phenomenal. An irresistible stage presence, Brace brims with talent and humanity. Tracy is the closest John Waters gets to a Disney heroine.
Continuing the tradition of casting a man in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna (in honour of Divine who originated the character) we are treated to the comedic stylings of Alex Bourne, a big fella whose Edna is full of sass and vulnerability. The show is not only about the fight for civil rights. With the Turnblad girls, it has a lot to say about self-acceptance and body positivity. Bourne is marvellous and he’s partnered with Norman Pace as Tracy’s dad Wilbur. Pace’s comic business befits joke-shop proprietor Wilbur. His duet with Edna brings the house down.
The emotional core of the show belongs to Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle. The song I Know Where I’ve Been is a searing civil rights anthem, lifting the show beyond its comedic shenanigans. It’s a blistering moment in a score that is bursting with great songs, from the opening number to the rousing, joyous finale, You Can’t Stop The Beat. Marc Shaiman’s melodies are infectious, and his lyrics (co-written with Scott Whittman) are witty and knowing. Excellent as the villains of the piece are Rebecca Thornhill as the bigoted Velma Von Tussle and Jessica Croll as her shrill daughter, Amber.
Making strong impressions among a hugely talented cast are Charlotte St Croix as Little Ines, Akeem Ellis-Hyman as the sinuous Seaweed, Richard Meek as the cheesy TV host Corny Collins, and Rebecca Jayne-Davis as Tracy’s eccentric best friend Penny Pingleton. Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin, Tracy’s love interest, is suitably swoonsome, and there is strong support from Paul Hutton and Ceris Hine as a range of authority figures (teachers, prison guards etc). But truly, the entire cast is magnificent, in great voice and expending vast amounts of energy executing Drew McOnie’s period-inspired choreography.
Of all the musicals currently doing the rounds, this is the one to see. It’s a perfect show, funny and relevant, with an important message about inclusivity that it delivers with wit and style.
This is powerful, life-affirming stuff and no matter how many times I see it, Hairspray still holds up.
I don’t know how many times I have seen this show but I am always glad of the chance to see it again. This latest tour does not disappoint in any department – which is what you hope for, of course – but yet again I am struck by the genius of the material. Based on a film of the same name by the self-appointed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this is more than the story of a determined, chubby girl to get herself dancing on a TV show; it is a microcosm of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and also, for our times, a fable that reminds us that different can be beautiful. Yes, it’s a feel-good musical, there’s no getting away from that, but the social commentary packs a punch that goes beyond its historical relevance. Look at the news and see right-wing morons behaving despicably in the USA today and you’ll see that abhorrent (and stupid) attitudes are still prevalent along with institutionalised racism – TV producer and the show’s villain, Velma would no doubt be a Trump supporter.
Making her professional debut, Rebecca Mendoza is superb as the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad, a veritable dynamo full of heart and energy. Mendoza also brings out Tracy’s inherent sense of humour and her vocal stylings are impeccable. Similarly, Edward Chitticks makes his Link Larkin more than a shallow Elvis wannabe – although he undoubtedly has all the moves. Jon Tsouras is both sharp and smooth as TV host Corny Collins. Brenda Edwards brings the house down as the sassy, brassy Motormouth Maybelle – her anthemic I KnowWhere I’ve Been gives goosebumps. Layton Williams makes for a sinuous, sinewy Seaweed – Drew McOnie’s choreography certainly allows him to shine – while Annalise Liard-Bailey’s geeky Penny Pingleton is a pleasure. Aimee Moore is particularly good as mean girl Amber Von Tussle while Gina Murray is marvellous as her mean-spirited mother. Monifa James impresses as Little Inez and there is much to enjoy from Graham Macduff and Tracey Penn in a variety of pop-up roles, including the TV sponsor and a crude prison guard.
Inevitably perhaps, the showstoppers are Tracy’s parents, Wilbur and Edna – fellow Dudley boy Norman Pace and Matt Rixon. Veteran star Pace shows no signs of waning and Rixon is pitch perfect in a role that is much more than a pantomime dame. Edna’s journey from the ironing board to national television is truly life-affirming, and Rixon makes the most of the humour and the underlying pathos of the part.
The main players are supported by an indefatigable chorus of singing, dancing marvels and a tireless band under the baton of musical director Ben Atkinson. Paul Kerryson’s direction keeps the fun factor high – you can’t help having a great time.
Marc Shaiman’s score has no filler and the lyrics, co-written with Scott Whittman, remain witty and sophisticated. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book retains enough of the Pope of Trash’s acerbic spirit to keep the whole from becoming saccharine sweet.
Everyone is on their feet for the irresistible finale, blown away and exhilarated by the energy and talent exuding from the stage. Hairspray retains its hold on me and while I’m uplifted by this fine production, I am saddened to realise that in these backward-facing times we need to heed its message just as much as we ever did.
Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 14th December, 2015
The irrepressibly feel-good musical comes to Brum for the festive season – an alternative to panto but the story has a lot in common with fairy tales. Our heroine Tracy Turnblad longs to go to the ball (in this case, become a dancer on The Corny Collins TV Show), there’s a wicked witch (racist TV producer Velma) and a handsome Prince Charming (Link Larkin). Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book captures the essence of the John Waters original film, while composer Mark Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s lyrics are clever, complex and witty. Shaiman’s tunes are all memorable, drawing on the styles of the era. It’s 1962 in Baltimore and society is segregated. Until Tracy Turnblad comes along…
As the ever-optimistic, single-minded idealist, Freya Sutton knocks your socks off. Her Tracy is an unstoppable force and instantly likeable, as she waves hello to rats, drunkards and flashers on her way to school. Her mother, Edna (Tony Maudsley) has self-esteem issues – Maudsley is spot on as a gruff-speaking Edna, gradually coming out of her shell and learning to love herself for who she is. Partnered by a sprightly Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the pair stop the show with their duet, You’re Timeless To Me. Duncan’s Wilbur is a mass of energy himself (much is made of the disparity in size between wife and husband) making the role his own – Tracy must get her vivaciousness and sense of social justice from somewhere. Duncan’s characterisation shows us exactly where.
Brenda Edwards brings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle with the soulful anthem I Know Where I’ve Been, in the show’s goosebumps moment; while Claire Sweeney’s elegantly vile and villainous Velma is a lot of fun – daughter Amber (Lauren Stroud) is the petulant, immature version. Monique Young gets laughs as Tracy’s awkward friend Penny. She embarks on an interracial relationship with dynamic Seaweed (an excellent Dex Lee) bringing the political thrust of the show to a personal level. Jon Tsouras is cheesily good as TV host Corny Collins and Ashley Gilmour makes an appealing Link. They are all supported by a superb ensemble of vibrant youngsters – although special mention must go to Adam Price and Tracey Penn who reappear in a range of ‘authority figure’ roles, from school teacher to prison guard.
The energy coming off the stage is infectious, thanks in no small part to the exuberant choreography by Drew McOnie. Director Paul Kerryson lets the social issues emerge without browbeating us, although when Motormouth sings she prays to her god and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr appears on the TV screen, it’s a little on the nose. My favourite number, I Can Hear The Bells, is splendidly staged, charting Tracy and Link’s entire relationship even though she has only just met him, in a swirl of teenage naivety and romanticism.
The show’s message about tolerance of others and acceptance of self still rings true. Hairspray will have you laughing and clapping along but it will also prick your conscience and remind you that the struggle goes on. You only have to look from Velma to Donald Trump to realise we are still plagued by blondes with ridiculous hairdos spouting hateful and divisive nonsense.
Freya Sutton takes centre stage as Tracy (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th October, 2015
Hairspray first saw the light of day – or the darkness of auditorium – in 1988 as a film by legendary director and Pope of Trash John Waters. It remains his only PG-rated material to date and launched Ricki Lake to stardom as overweight teen and wannabe TV star, Tracey Turnblad. Waters cast friend and long-time collaborator Divine as Tracey’s mother Edna and so, when the film was adapted as a musical for the Broadway stage, a theatrical tradition was established: Edna is now a plum role for men, with such luminaries as Michael Ball and John Travolta picking up her iron. In the current touring production, which arrives in Birmingham in time for Christmas, the role is played by Benidorm favourite Tony Maudsley who confesses he is getting used to the heels and the spanx. Teamed up with Blue Peter favourite Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the physical difference between the two maximises the comic effect. They treat us to a rendition of their duet You’re Timeless To Me, which is as charming as it is funny – although references to Geritol and Ripple may be lost on the casual audience member.
The event is hosted by Brookside favourite (I know, I keep saying favourite) Claire Sweeney who shows herself to be a natural at this kind of thing, with an easy-going, down-to-earth manner. Sadly, we don’t get to hear her sing on this occasion but she is keen to point out that the show is more than the pink and fluffy bit of fun its own publicity material might lead us to believe. The show is about tolerance, of accepting your own individuality, says Sweeney. With its backdrop of racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore, the show has an undercurrent of something more serious going on and, producer Matthew Gale points out, this production emphasises some of those darker aspects that previous versions may have glossed over.
We are treated to Without Love, reminding me of how vibrant Mark Shaiman’s score is and how funny the lyrics are (Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The highlight of the afternoon though is Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle belting out I Know Where I’ve Been, sending shivers down your spine. Even take out of context, this is a soulful crowd-pleaser, delivered flawlessly by one of the most powerful vocalists in the business.
My appetite is well and truly whetted for a return visit to the New Alexandra Theatre in December.
Hairspray runs from Monday 14th December 2015 until Saturday 2nd January 2016.