• Our critic's rating:
    Thursday, August 9, 2007
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    With a name like Tracy Turnblad and a waist that speaks rather more than a mere '5 veg a day', a high school girl might be forgiven for thinking that her future in the dancing and romance departments might be a little on the bleak side. But Tracy is built of sterner stuff, as indeed is her monumentally large mother, Edna. Perky and good natured, Tracy and her friend Penny Pingleton are ardent devotees of the 'Corny Collins Show', a studio-based TV dance programme that plays the latest pop numbers and sports gorgeous-looking young dancers. Against the odds, Tracy succeeds in winning an audition and the shows' heart-throb, Link Larkin, becomes her boyfriend.

    But that's not all to this musical which is set in Baltimore in 1962. Because when Tracy meets a black student in detention one day, her eyes are opened to the invidious practice of segregation and she decides to lead a campaign for integration, particularly aimed at the 'Corny Collins Show'.

    'Hairspray' is based on the 1988 film of the same name directed by John Waters. It didn't do particularly well when it first appeared, but later became a cult movie on video. The film marked a departure for Waters whose career had until then been spent producing low-budget films that had inventive characterisations and plot lines, combined with unusual and sometimes stomach churning visuals (eg 'Female Trouble'). Though Waters went on to produce films with more widely acceptable, mainstream themes - Serial Mom is a particular favourite of mine - his early films were always set in Baltimore and employed many of the same actors including the notorious 'Divine' (Harris Glenn Milstead), Waters' childhood friend who lived just a few doors away.

    I haven't watched the original Hairspray for some time, but if my fading memory recalls correctly, someone seems to have made the decision to pay homage to the film's characters. And with Waters' himself employed as a consultant on this musical version, it's not difficult to see why that might be.

    Michael Ball's excellent Edna could be a double for the same character played by Divine in Waters' original film. If it was the intention for Ball to follow Divine's characterisation, he succeeded almost to the letter. Even his frame seems to have been padded to reproduce the same shape as Divine in the film.

    Leanne Jones takes on the Ricki Lake role as Tracy Turnblad, and here too there's a striking resemblance. There's the bouffant, streaked blond hair, and even Jones's frame could be a mirror-image of Lake's from the film. And Jones is every bit as lively and bouncy, setting the right tone from the start in the catchy and endearing opening number.

    Mel Smith takes something of a back seat for the first half of the show as Tracy's father, Wilbur, but he comes to the fore after the interval in a humorous dance duet with Michael Ball's Edna.

    Though 'Hairspray' could easily have about 20 minutes pruned from it without anyone noticing much, it's extremely well produced and directed. The costumes and setting are loud, almost raucous as one would expect, and the sets do the job of suggesting the numerous locations without leaving us hanging around for long scene changes. Jack O'Brien's pacey, but faithful direction builds on the original concept with wit and subtle humour, without ever letting the whole thing go over the top. His task has been made easier thanks to the well-written dialogue and gags in the book by O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. The writing team have produced some subtle jokes that you have to think about before they actually dawn on you. For example, when Tracey and her white family find themselves in a black music shop, one wit says “If we get any more white people in here it will be a suburb”. And when Edna is doing her laundry, she says 'My diet pill is wearing off”.

    Marc Shaiman's music has some engaging melodies, and foot-tapping numbers that make 'Hairspray' a lively and appealing show. Though there are few songs that one could describe as truly memorable, they aren't run-of-the-mill either. In some musicals one has the distinct impression that some songs simply plug the gaps, but not here. All the numbers seemed appropriate for both the era in which the show is set as well as dovetailing well with the plot and characters.

    I don't mind the idea of souvenir programmes, but you may want to book an articulated truck to get this one home as it's about the size of a billboard. And, though not as expensive as some programmes I've seen, at £5 it's still enough to take (a little of) the edge off what is otherwise a great night out.

    (Peter Brown)

    "Was the show worth it? Yes, yes and again yes."
    Paul Taylor for Independent

    "Where the show really scores is in its ability to integrate serious issues into a lightweight plot...Jerry Mitchell's joyous choreography is the beating heart of the show."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

    "If you are up for a good will strike you as heaven on earth. You will laugh, you will scream, you might even shed a sentimental tear or two...there is no mistaking its big, raucous heart. "
    Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph

    Benedict Nightingale for The Times

    "Marc Shaiman's urgent score, with clever, often witty lyrics written with Scott Whitman, keeps Hairspray pulsating with musical excitement as well as political anger."
    Nicholas De Jongh for The Evening Standard

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    The independent - The Guardian - Daily Telegraph - The Times

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