Tag Archives: Marc Shaiman

Still Holding Up

HAIRSPRAY

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.

*****

Brenda Edwards sings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle (Photo: Mark Senior)

Firm Favourite

HAIRSPRAY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 9th October, 2017

 

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 Know Where 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.

Hairspray

Good morning, Birmingham! Rebecca Mendoza IS Tracy Turnblad


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.

Image

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