Tag Archives: Freya Sutton

Hair Tonic

HAIRSPRAY

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.

The cast of Hairspray. Credit Ellie Kurttz (1).jpg

Freya Sutton takes centre stage as Tracy (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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Hair Today

HAIRSPRAY

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.

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Bed head. Tracy (Freya Sutton)dreams of a brighter future