Big Hair, Big Heart, Big Fun

~ Charles Spencer for The Telegraph - 31/10/2007 ~

Tense nervous headache? Feeling a little peaky? Hungover? Then for heaven's sake give this show a miss. It will strike you as a terrifying vision of hell. All that noise, my dear, and the people.

If you are up for a good time, however, and especially if you are a teenage girl who has just downed a couple of alcopops, it will strike you as heaven on earth. You will laugh, you will scream, you might even shed a sentimental tear or two. I even managed to make quite a night of it myself, and I'm male and middle-aged, as the National Theatre boss, Nicholas Hytner, is fond of pointing out.

The mystery about this ebullient and good-hearted show is that it has taken so long to arrive in England, and then only to find a berth at the Shaftesbury, which, after such jaw-droppingly terrible shows as Napoleon, Lautrec, Batboy and others too ghastly to recall, is widely regarded as a graveyard for doomed musicals.

But, on Broadway, Hairspray is a smash hit. I caught it there five years ago, and it is still going strong, having grossed some $200 million to date.

Based on the 1988 John Waters movie, and recently turned into a film musical starring John Travolta, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a short, rotund teenage schoolgirl who is determined to become a star dancer on the Corny Collins TV pop show.

The year is 1962, the action takes place in Baltimore, and the irrepressible Tracy is determined not to let her chunky body rule out her chances. She endures insults and malice along the way, but sticks to her guns, and even succeeds in gaining the love of the town hunk. And she instinctively sides with the black youngsters, who are allowed to participate in the strictly segregated show only on special "Negro" days. Hairspray, which appears to have barely a thought in its head, is actually a touching protest against prejudice, and a celebration of the birth of America's civil-rights movement as Tracy brings the racial barriers crashing down.

Mercifully, the show never descends into worthiness. Not that it could, with its preposterous hairstyles, kitsch, retina-bruising designs and a superb pop score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which gloriously captures the sounds of pop before the arrival of the Beatles – girl groups, rock and roll, rhythm and blues and an amazing gospel number that almost lifts the roof off the theatre.

There's even a delightful vaudevillian routine for Michael Ball, who plays Tracy's corpulent mum in spectacular big-bosomed drag and looks as if he's having the time of his life, and Mel Smith as her devoted, joke-shop-owning husband.

The lyrics occasionally aspire to real wit – I particularly liked the song for the glamorously bitchy and racist villain of the piece (excellent Tracie Bennett), who insists: "You can say I'm a bigot but it's just not true/I love Sammy Davis and he's black and a Jew."

Director Jack O'Brien, who alternates raucous musicals like this with superb revivals of Tom Stoppard at the Lincoln Centre, ensures that sentiment and laughter are mixed in just the right proportions in a show that offers a sugar-rush of pleasure.

Jerry Mitchell's choreography is splendidly effervescent and newcomer Leanne Jones, straight out of drama school and making her professional debut, has exactly the right bubble and bounce as Tracy, moving with a lightness of foot that belies her avoirdupois.

The show might be less slick than in New York, but there is no mistaking its big, raucous heart.

I saw Hairspray at the final preview rather than the press night, and the audience's whooping response and spontaneous standing ovation suggest it could prove to be the big hit that has eluded the Shaftesbury for so long.

Tickets: 020 7379 5399

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