Hairspray's Blessing: Hotly Anticipated Tranfer to London
Mark Senior for Broadwayworld.com - 12/11/2007 ~
After years of fruitless speculation, the long overdue and hotly anticipated transfer of Broadway smash Hairspray has finally arrived in the Shaftsbury Theatre. And for a venue that has recently been plagued by a stream of short-run productions with poor box office success, what a blessing this must be. For surely here is a show that is set to run and run.
Adapted from the 1988 cult film of the same title, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a young 60's Baltimore girl who wants nothing more than to dance on the set of the famed Corny Collins Show. The only trouble is, Tracy's big personality has a big waste line to match, and Baltimore is not a place for people who are different.
Marc Shaiman's score oozes an unrelenting energy, with fantastically catchy melodies and a driving rhythm that leaves the foot mindlessly tapping from start to end. The larger dance numbers such as ‘Nicest Kids in Town' burst through the roof with such momentum that, but for a sprinkling of quieter moments, you barely have chance to catch your breath. With Scott Wittman's witty, thoughtful, and at times hilarious lyrics the songs also become the perfect vehicle for the narrative. Rather than stalling the action, even the larger chorus numbers act to communicate some of the bigger themes of prejudice and segregation, where ‘nice white kids' can lead the way while anyone who is different trails behind.
Visually, Hairspray has all the colour, boldness and vivacity needed to complement what is a vibrant story full of larger than life characters. David Rockwell's sets, which have a deliberately two-dimensional feel in order to capture the 1960's small screen aesthetic, are a sumptuous mix of candy pinks, blues and yellows, and William Ivey Long's outrageous costumes look something close to edible. While Edna Turnblad's numerous bright and busy frocks provide some of the show's visual highlights, homage must also be paid to Tracy's infamous hairdo, which throughout the first act becomes increasingly and ridiculously over proportioned.
LeAnne Jones, making her professional debut as the loveable Tracy gives a spirited performance, moving with an eager and endearing awkwardness while singing wonderfully in sugary bubblegum tones. From the moment she steps out of bed in the jaunty opening number Goof Morning Baltimore, the audience is on side and positively cheers when events unfold in her favour. Musical theatre veteran Michael Ball also proves to be a stroke of casting genius, and is almost unrecognisable as the gutsy mother Edna Turnblad. At points his comic timing is impeccable and the audience is left in stitches at the simple turning of a head. A highlight is You're Timeless To Me, a duet with on stage husband Wilbur Turnblad (played by Mel Smith) where each comic line or witticism is delivered with a self-knowing irony. Notable performances from supporting cast come from Tracy Bennett, who plays vicious television producer Velma Von Tussle, and Rachael Wooding, who plays her brattish daughter Amber. Bennett's hateful facial expressions are almost cartoonish, and her general fierceness is hilariously absurd given the fluffy context. Wooding also delivers her lines with a brash American whine and scoops of sarcasm that make her strangely likeable.
Where this show really succeeds however is in its ability to underpin some potentially heavy themes with a light-hearted optimism. Issues of racism, prejudice and segregation are all very much at the forefront, but they are filtered through Tracy's world where there is an unending supply of hope and self-belief. Essentially this is a feel good musical with enough depth to have substance, but not so much that the story becomes overly philosophical. In short, Hairspray has every ingredient for the perfect night out: supercharged dance, toe-tapping music, loveable characters, oodles of comedy and bucket loads of colour. What a bag of treats.