Whole lot of shaking goin' on

~ Matt Wolf for Theatrenews Online - 04/11/2007 ~

That hackneyed phrase a star is born hasn't been heard much of late, so now's the time to crack open the potential cliche with regard to Leanne Jones , a 22-year-old Englishwoman whose professional stage debut as Tracy Turnblad in the long-overdue West End production of Hairspray is nothing short of a theatrical miracle. From her first vertical appearance aboard the bed from which this zesty, sometimes cartoonish, ultimately very touching confection springs into life, Jones grabs Jack O'Brien's production by the scruff of its exuberantly coiffed neck though Michael Ball and Mel Smith are self-evidently the bigger names, it is Jones who gets - and deserves - the show's final bow, and let's hope she hears not just bells but audience hosannas ringing for some time to come. As was true of a previous Broadway Tony winner at this address, namely Thoroughly Modern Millie , Hairspray seems a calmer, sweeter affair in London than it did, at least to me, on Broadway, where I caught it at a matinee that found me seated in direct earshot of one of the side speakers as far as I know, no permanent hearing damage has ensued.

That's not to say the UK cast isn't fully up to speed with choreography by Jerry Mitchell exuberant enough to curl with excitement even the straightest 'do. But with Ball in thorough control of the part of the stay-at-home mother, Edna Turnblad, who ends up joining her daughter on Tracy's social, terpsichorean crusade, you get the full weight of a show that really is about family values, to use a phrase that has lost all meaning thanks to our leaders these days: its points about such societal concerns as integration beautifully, well, integrated into a brightly colored day-glo fantasia that wears even its prison interludes and protest marches with breezy elan.

Ball, arms first seen sagging to a degree that might shock those who only remember this commendably restless musical theater talent from his juvenile days in Les Miserables , follows John Travolta's lead from the recent film in allowing Edna essentially to remain a supporting character, albeit one who gets to burst forth for the final number from a mile-high aerosol can that will no doubt be the most hotly contested item as and when it comes time to dismantle David Rockwell's set - and let's hope that's not for years. His singing voice growlier than usual , whether due to a lingering cold or by way of paying homage to the part's originator Harvey Fierstein, Ball acts the role with real maternal solicitude and sweetness, though it does seem a bit odd to have opposite him a Wilbur from Smith who cuts against the thin, reedy physical grain that one tends to associate with this role. In most other respects, Smith seems a perfectly game guest at a party to which he was doubtless surprised to have been invited. The only genuine casting misstep is Ben James-Ellis , who seems rather dramatically out of his depth as the good guy heartthrob, Link.

Listening to the Marc Shaiman / Scott Wittman score all over again, one is astonished by the degree to which it apes the music of the period - the early 1960s - while contributing to a very 21st-century dance-along finale that, for once, doesn't feel contrived and cynical in the dubious format set by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat , a show that, by comparison, seems one long reprise. And this cast, with one or two exceptions, knocks the material halfway to New York. Tracie Bennett is nothing short of sublime as the villainous Velma, her vampy, baroque theatrics entirely at home with the outsized emotionalism of a piece that somehow nonetheless manages to seem intimate when it has to in the more domestic scenes. And both Elinor Collett and Rachael Wooding score bigtime as Penny and Amber, the good and bad eggs, respectively, of Tracy's schoolmate set. Johnnie Fiori's fearsome, funny Motormouth Maybelle resembles a rather grand audition for Effie in Dreamgirls, if that particular Broadway legend ever does finally make it to the London stage. (Don't hold your breath .) Until then, we have five years after it hit Broadway a true burst of New York theatrical pizzazz as powered by a newfound West End phenomenon in Jones. Long may the show, and its leading lady, shimmy and shake.

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