A really fantastic hair day

A gorgeous new star, great actors and a big heart: Hairspray is the musical with everything

~ Susanna Clappp for The Observer - 04/11/2007 ~

Buoyant, bouffant and big-hearted, Hairspray is girly, curly pleasure. At a stroke, this show should change for ever the reputation of the Shaftesbury, until now renowned as the natural home of musical stinkers.

Jack O'Brien's production has a new star in Leanne Jones: it's amazing that this is her professional debut. In Michael Ball and Mel Smith, it has two established stars being surprising . It's driven by a really sharp script and lyrics, but also by Jerry Mitchell's terrific choreography and by Marc Shaiman's non-stop, grab-you-by-the-legs, gospel, rock and doo-wop music. Johnnie Fiori is magnificent as the gold-laméd Motormouth Maybelle; the beautiful Dynamite girlband shimmer husky-voiced across the stage in red glitter. What's more, despite all the glitz and bounce and brass and jokes, this is a musical with bottom. Big bottom.

Based on John Waters's 1988 cult movie, the show has been a five-year-long hit on Broadway and has recently been filmed with John Travolta in the dame role (will all boyish baritones now start trying to be women?). Set in Baltimore in 1962 - a place of racial bigotry and perfectly tended teeth - it stars a short plump teenager, daughter of a laundress, who sets her sights not merely on appearing on the 'Corny Collins Show', a teenage dance programme sponsored by a hairspray, but on being crowned that year's Miss Hairspray. The favourite is a glossy, skinny blonde, being pushed to fame by her even glossier, blonder, skinnier mother: 'We can learn a lot from the mistakes of Miss Debbie Reynolds.'

With the lightest of touches - it continually sends up the possibility of being meaningful - Hairspray is about people being excluded, ignored and made to feel weird. 'They don't put people like us on television,' sighs Mrs Turnblad over her iron. When Tracy becomes intoxicated with the dance routines of her black schoolmates - who are allowed only one segregated day on the dance show - she ingenuously exclaims: 'I wish every day was Negro Day.' 'In our house, it is,' says one of her friends.

You know Leanne Jones is going to be musical newcomer of the year from the moment the curtain goes up on one of David Rockwell's perky, cardboard interiors, designed to look like pastiche birthday cards for Sixties teenagers. Propped on her pillows, cushioned on enormous tresses, Jones belts out the opening number so vigorously you're surprised she can stay in bed.

Michael Ball, not what you'd call intuitive casting for Mom, is a revelation. He starts the show in a housecoat and support stockings: he/she is mountainous, saggy-breasted and (crucially) straggle-maned; he ends up looking like an animated knickerbocker glory, with high, coiled hair and swirling silky dress. He plays the Dame card terrifically well; most of the time with a voice pitched like a woman's rather than a panto parody, so that when he drops into male gruffness the comic effect is really comic. When the women anti-segregationists are banged up, the jail is filled with the sound of female shrieks and squeals. Ball's bass tones cut through the high-pitched hullabaloo: 'It's just us girls in the big dark house,' he booms, as he pulls the bars away.

Mel Smith as the Daddy has too little to do (and his hair doesn't get a makeover) but he does that little with such sad-sack amiability that he's a consistently benign presence: his 'Timeless to Me' duo with Ball is one of the unexpected showstoppers; when they kiss, it's more kind than camp.

Apart from anything else, this is a really good hair play, in which the highest of compliments concerns 'the record-breaking extreme your hair has reached' and in which you can guess what's between people's ears by looking at what's on top of their heads. The appealing Elinor Collett - the oomphless best friend with Bambi legs - is a case in point. She falls for Seaweed, an ultra-accomplished black dancer elegantly played by Adrian Hansel: 'I'm very pleased I'm scared to be here,' she squeaks, as she finds herself close to black faces for the first time in her life. By the end of the show she has become a free, wild thing: you can be sure of that, since her lank locks have been transformed into a bouncing tangle of corkscrew curls.

There are flick-ups and beehives and backbrushed nests, secured with bows and forehead-clenching hairbands; there's a Philip Treacy sculptural moment when three girls parade under hairdos which variously look like enormous pricked ears, a spindle and a spiral. Tracy drops extra layers on to her barnet so that it becomes as fluffy and full as a Russian fur hat. There have already begun to be hair tributes from audience members, who arrive bouffanted and beehived; these are likely to be more and more extravagant as the show takes off.

This is part of a new upsurge for the musical in London, which has been largely in a slump - too many vapid shows, too many revivals, too many dully replicated adaptations of movies. Now it's all looking more promising: last month, the austere, high-minded and spirited Parade opened at the Donmar; next year Jersey Boys, a documentary musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, arrives in the West End from the States and Marguerite, a Second World War love story based on La Dame aux Camelias, has its world premiere at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Dissimilar in content and style, the important thing these shows have in common is that they all have proper subjects and are all setting out to explore those subjects in their own way: non-synthetically. What makes Hairspray irresistible is that it has not a moment of earnestness - it comes on like theatrical bubble-gum, all pink, poppy and elastic - and yet it bats more winningly for the right side than many more po-faced offerings. Hairspray deserves a permanent wave.

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