Michael Ball's 'Hairspray lady' fools fans

~ Telegraph - 30/10/2007 ~

It is one of the greatest stage vanishing acts. Producers of a new West End musical have been taken aback by complaints from disappointed members of the audience that its advertised star, Michael Ball, keeps failing to appear.

Ball, one of the West End's highest-paid stars and hitherto instantly recognisable from a string of stage hits such as Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, disappears for the entire show into the persona of an enormously overweight, agoraphobic, middle-aged, American "trailer trash" mother called Edna Turnblad.

As cross-dressing goes, his transformation is as convincing as Barry Humphries' alter ego, Dame Edna Everage – and maybe too good for some.

According to one source, a number of Ball fans who bought preview tickets to see a new West End production of the Broadway hit Hairspray have asked for refunds after failing to spot him.

This was denied yesterday by producer Adam Spiegel, the son of the late Sam Spiegel who produced films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

But he admitted several members of the audience had complained about Ball's apparent absence from the show, which has its opening night at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London tomorrow.

"We have had a dozen complaints to the box office staff at the intervals during the previews," said Mr Spiegel.

"We have to assure them that they are mistaken. Michael is extremely flattered that his disguise is so good. He does make an extremely impressive woman."

Ball, 45, must wear a fat suit into which he slips a pair of plastic size 46EEE breasts. Weighing 2lbs each, the singer has been complaining that they have given him bad back pain, according to Spiegel.

Ball's makeover is completed with support tights, painting in the shadow for a cleavage, waxing out his eyebrows, a choice of half-dozen wigs and dresses, false eyelashes, layer upon layer of foundation to hide his stubble, make-up, and a weekly shaving of the chest.

Preparation for each performance takes him 40 minutes and after being taught the ropes, Ball has now insisted on doing his own make-up.

"He said right from day one that he wanted to do it himself because he feels it helps him to get into character," said Rebecca Quigley, the show's company manager.

"We have all been talking about it quite a bit and Michael says that he thinks that all men want to dress up as a woman once in their lives. He says that this is his moment at last – and he's loving it.

"When I first saw him come out for the technical rehearsal, it was weird and wasn't really what I was expecting. He has confused a lot of people. Fans have been going up to him saying they were looking out for him in the show and thought he must have been indisposed."

The musical, about a low-class American mother and daughter who dream of becoming famous, has been an enormous hit in America.

With serious messages about racism and sizeism, it won eight Tony Awards on Broadway, and is still running there after five years. In the West End, where it opens with advance bookings of £5 million, it will offer the bizarre spectacle of Ball in a romantic duet with his stage husband, played by the comedian Mel Smith.

The show was adapted from the camp 1980s film of the same name by John Waters, who cast the late drag actor Divine as Edna Turnblad.

A film re-make based on the musical was released this year with John Travolta playing the mother.

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