Artisteer

Hairspray

~ Michael Billington for The Guardian - 31/10/2007 ~


The great thing about John Waters' 1988 cult movie was that you felt every expense had been spared. But even if Hairspray, in the process of being turned into a Broadway musical, has lost some of its glorious tackiness, it retains its generous spirit: this is still a show that not only hymns physical difference but also the basic right to racial integration.

Even in its new theatrical form, the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan remains perilously thin. Unlike, of course, the show's heroine, Tracy Turnblad, a 16-year-old Baltimore girl who is extremely well-rounded. Avoirdupois notwithstanding, Tracy gets hooked on a TV dance show and determines to beat the favoured contestant to become Miss Hairspray 1962. Part of the show's good-hearted charm lies in seeing how Tracy, from her first experience of sexy black dancing in the school gym, determines to fight segregation on Baltimore's daytime TV.

At its best, the show gently mocks the naivety of white liberalism. "I wish every day were negro day," Tracy remarks of TV's monthly obeisance to Baltimore's racial divide. "In our house, it is," one of Tracy's black chums wanly retorts. At its worst, Hairspray lapses into sentimental piety. Where the show really scores is in its ability to integrate serious issues into a lightweight plot.

Jerry Mitchell's joyous choreography is the beating heart of the show. There is something dionysiac about it; and, if the show achieves the ecstasy one looks for in a musical, it comes largely through the dance routines.

But the performances, in Jack O'Brien's deliciously fluid production, underline the show's basic benevolence. Leanne Jones is a remarkable Tracy with a talent as high and wide as her scooped-up hair. She puts across Marc Shaiman's numbers with belting brio. And Michael Ball is very funny as her muscular moll of a mum who once entertained dreams of being a designer. "I thought I was going to be the biggest thing in brassieres," Ball announces in gravel-voiced tones. What makes him so good is that he reminds us that heftiness is not incompatible with haute couture.

Mel Smith, as Tracy's joke-retailing dad, seems underemployed until he joins Ball in a front-cloth duo.

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