Hairspray, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

The big, brash and beautiful Broadway musical Hairspray is perhaps the most sweet-natured take on a John Waters film one could possibly imagine. But while the original film’s lapses into poor taste are softened by the onstage cutesiness, there remains a sense of purpose and a quest for justice that still feels sadly relevant.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, the musical traces the life of local teenager Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Mendoza) who dreams of being on the local teen dance TV show, despite being heavier set than the girls typically chosen by producer Velma Von Tussle (Gina Murray). After achieving her dream thanks to some dance moves learned from her high school’s black pupils, her steadfast resilience in calling for racial integration lands her and her friends in hot water.

This sets the scene for protests, subterfuge and hijinks. And while the cause – the end to racially segregated television shows – is no Black Lives Matter, it’s still an entertaining way to engage younger audiences in the struggles of the civil rights movement.

Mostly, though, people come to this musical for the songs and the dancing. And here, Director Paul Kerryson gets the elements just right. Marc Shaiman’s score emulates the burgeoning pop music of the era, as white producers appropriated styles developed by the country’s African American communities and commercialised them for (largely white) consumption. Fitting in with this, Choreographer Drew McOnie captures the essence of pre-Beatles 1960s pop, from the sanitised dances of the troupe on the Corny Collins Show to the looser, more energetic styles demonstrated by Leyton Williams’ Seaweed J Stubbs.

And it is Williams who shines most brightly throughout. A former Billy Elliot, his boundless energy and enthusiasm both in his solo and group dances really help to elevate this touring production. It’s a jolt of caffeine that this show sorely needs in places, for while the cast is generally tremendous, they are stuck inside one of the most lacklustre designs. Fold-out house interiors are often just stark, plain and badly coloured walls, while the use of video projection backdrops – occasionally effective, as in the protest march that forms the Act I climax – is spotty at best.

Mendoza’s Tracy is bright and breezy, although not quite the dancer that the book would suggest, while Edward Chitticks’ heartthrob Link Larkin has his moments. Of the other supporting teens it is, ironically, Aimee Moore as Amber Von Tussle, supposedly a poor dancer only in the troupe due to being the producer’s daughter, who provides the best backup.

Among the adult characters, Murray delivers the goods with a great solo number (Miss Baltimore Crabs) in which her tremendous belt continues while being flung about in daring lifts by members of the male dance ensemble. And while Brenda Edwards’ Motormouth Maybelle is saddled with some of the show’s most egregiously awful outfits, her trademark powerhouse voice rightly brings the house down on the show’s big eleven o’clock number, I Know Where I’ve Been – the time when the show’s nods to civil rights become most emphatic.

As Tracy’s mother Edna, Matt Rixon is far from the worst portrayal of that character the British stage has seen – he’s no Phill Jupitus, after all. As a result, Edna’s transformation from housebound caterpillar to hot momma butterfly feels rather less earned than it should. Her portrayal’s not helped by Norman Pace’s Wilbur, whose only big number – the duet You’re Timeless to Me, is devoid of pretty much any romantic overtones.

But despite the shortcomings, this touring production of Hairspray still provides a delightful evening. And while in reality it can feel, over half a century on, that little has changed in the way America treats race, one does leave the theatre believing that each generation will try harder, and do better, than the one before.

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