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Chubby Teen, Drag Queen Wow London as `Hairspray' Mania Grips

~ Warwick Thompson for Bloomberg - 01/11/2007 ~


The ``Hairspray'' juggernaut finally rolled into London in a welter of candy-colored costumes, electric blue ostrich feathers, spangles and big hair.

With its pastiche Motown score, it also arrived with an ominous ``feelgood factor'' stamped all over it.

``Hairspray'' has already grossed more than $200 million since its 2002 Broadway premiere, according to the program note, and become a successful film. With its large cast and lavish sets, the London staging clearly required much investment.

As with most things ``feelgood,'' I feared the worst. Shame on me: ``Hairspray'' feels more than good. It feels great.

Jack O'Brien, the director, keeps everything larger than life while still, somehow, remaining true to it. The stylized bedrooms, jails, and TV studios of David Rockwell's sets whiz on and off in the blink of an eye.

William Ivey Long's costumes are a riot of circular skirts, checked trousers, polka dots, stripes, spangles, and big wigs.

In true music-theater fashion, the show has also created a new star out of recent stage-school graduate Leanne Jones. She is Tracy Turnblad, an optimistic plus-size teen in 1962 Baltimore who battles fattyphobes to realize her dream of dancing on a local TV show.

Twinkle Toes

On the way she also gets the whites-only show fully integrated, and wins the heart of the chiseled lead singer Link Larkin. Jones has a cute girlish mezzo, an electric sense of comedy, and twinkles on her toes beautifully.

No wonder Link (Ben James-Ellis) falls in love. ``You ground-breaking extremist, you,'' he sighs lovingly.

The book (Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) is not just a hymn to the outsized, but to all things outre too.

Tracy's ample mother Edna is a drag role, played by Michael Ball. During the course of the plot, Edna swaps her cheap dirty housecoat and insecurity for sequins and self-worth. Ball turns in a funny and touching performance, resisting the temptation to go over-the-top.

``Timeless to Me,'' the duet between Edna and her adoring husband Wilbur (Mel Smith), is a delight.

It's one of several showstoppers in Marc Shaiman's roof- raising score. The finale, ``You Can't Stop the Beat'' with its propulsive rhythms and breathless rhymes, is a surefire memory- lodger.

``Hairspray'' has enough hold to keep things up for years.

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