Reviewer: Ruth Jepson
Starting as a John Waters film in 1988, turned into a stage show in 2002, and a musical film in 2007 Hairspray is the latest show turned into a television event by NBC in America. No matter what stage of its history you were first introduced to the franchise, you cannot deny that it’s a story which keeps popping up at times of racial tension. And in Trump’s America and post-Brexit Britain, it’s a good choice to bring back into the main stream to remind us all that integration is the new frontier.
Hairspray tells the story of Baltimore in the 60s, when segregation between blacks and whites is rife, and one young girl just wants everyone to sing and dance together no matter what their colour, gender or size. Tracy Turnblad is going to change the world, via the medium of The Corny Collins Show, and taking in her overweight mother, a villainous TV producer, and the black rights movement.
The soundtrack is very much worth a listen, even though there are a few flaws. Immediately skip to track 15, where you will be blown away by Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been as Motormouth Maybelle. It’s a haunting ballad reminding us to keep going through adversity and keep true to ourselves, and Hudson seriously stops you in your tracks with the sheer power of her voice. Out of the whole soundtrack, she is only matched vocally by Derek Hough as Corny Collins, whose cheeky tones prove he is absolutely the Ladies Choice. Also strong is Harvey Fierstein donning the dress as Edna Turnblad, and keeping it true to the original Devine by not even trying to disguise his masculine voice. Surprisingly this works, and his duet You’re Timeless to Me with husband Wilbur (Martin Shott) is simply lovely. Less successful is Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Von Tussle. Her acting may be great, but in all her songs – most notably The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs she sounds more like a pantomime villain than a credible threat to the protagonists. Very off putting.
What of the younger cast members? Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad does an impressive job leading the cast, even if her voice is a bit nasal, making her solos somewhat lacklustre. She shines when supported by other cast members however, particularly the triad of Seaweed J Stubbs, Penny Pingleton and Link Larkin (Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grande and Garrett Clayton). Without Love for these four is especially worth a listen. But honestly, the one to watch vocally has to be Shahadi Wright Joseph as Little Inez, who spends shivers down your spine during Run and Tell That. A bright future is ahead for her.
Together, the cast does a great job with this soundtrack, and the mix of famous names and the lesser known works very well. With the current upswing of racism due to recent political events, perhaps a kitschy, campy musical is exactly what we need to remind ourselves of what has been overcome in the past and can still be overcome in the present.
Album Available from Sony Masterworks Broadway | Image: Brian Bowen Smith