Hairspray: The night a new star will be born

~ Daily Mail - 12/10/2007 ~

' Jack O'Brien, the veteran Broadway director, said that when the American producer of Hairspray saw British newcomer Leanne Jones on stage she cried.

"Listen, a tear hasn't rolled down that cheek since 1938," he added wryly.

I saw Ms Jones paying sassy Tracy Turnblad, who just a few short months ago was working at the Moorgate branch of the Halifax, at the penultimate rehearsal of Hairspray (it started previews last night) and I knew straight away what O'Brien, as shrewd an observer of theatre as you can get, was on about.

He has staged everything from the New York production of Tom Stoppard's acclaimed Coast of Utopia trilogy to the musical The Full Monty.

Now he's turning his attentions to the fresh, joyous, vibrant, vital Hairspray, on at Shaftesbury Theatre with the curiously ladylike Michael Ball done up fabulously to play Ms Jones's mama Edna Turnblad (well, it IS based on John Waters's satirical movie of the same name, which had drag queen Divine as Edna, while John Travolta played her in the film musical).

Hairspray is set in Baltimore in 1962, when America was at a social and racial crossroads. John F. Kennedy was in the White House and it was, as O'Brien puts it, 'America's last gasp of innocence' before Kennedy was assassinated.

O'Brien was at graduate school in Michigan and knows well the social mores the musical explores.

"I remember that sex wasn't seen as a natural inclination, that you had standards and had to behave yourself in a certain way," O'Brien said.

All that historical and social setting is integrated in what the director terms a "sweetly subversive way".

The show doesn't lecture you. It's great fun.

But all that O'Brien spoke of gently underpins Hairspray in the way that a feminist sensibility informs Mamma Mia! O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell, the show's choreographer, had insisted on getting a British actress to play Tracy, but secretly feared they might have to bring someone over from America.

"We finally saw Leanne and I said it would be irresponsible of us not to cast that girl - she's a star," O'Brien recalled.

Hairspray was the first show where someone said 'Yes' to Ms Jones.

"I've had posters of Michael Ball on my wall since I was a little girl," she told me. Now she's hoofing it up on stage playing his/her daughter.

I think Ms Jones is going to emerge from Hairspray a star - a real one - with quality.

The official first night is on October 30. Mark it as the night a star was born.

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