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Hairspray Live! – The Shows Must Go On

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Music: Marc Shaiman

Lyrics: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman

Director: Kenny Leon

Earlier this year the BFI hosted a very special screening of John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray celebrating its influence as a dance musical. In attendance were three generations of Tracy Turnblads, Waters’ lead Riki Lake, Leanne Jones the first UK Tracy on stage and newcomer Lizzie Bea who should have been in the middle of a, now postponed, revival at the Coliseum as we speak. One of the great modern musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s YouTube Channel The Shows Must Go On has a treat for us this week: a 2016 American TV-movie, Hairspray Live!, available for just 48 hours.

Fuller figured Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with dancing and auditions to appear on the Corny Collins show. Facing opposition from the existing stars including arch-rival Amber Von Tussle, Tracy immediately turns heads with her saucy dance routine and outspoken political views. With a dream of racial integration, Tracy inspires local DJ Motormouth Mabel, her son Seaweed and others to join her in a march on the TV studio where a new future awaits.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s 2002 musical is a fabulous, high energy, pseudo-60s joy explosion that sweeps you along. Kenny Leon’s 2016 adaptation is a lot of fun to watch, positioning itself somewhere between the original stage show, the 2007 song-filled movie and Waters’ original. Defined as a dance show by the BFI, Leon takes a great deal of the show ‘outside’ to recreate Baltimore streets that emphasise the big choreographed sequences filmed on a studio lot.

Jerry Mitchell’s dance arrangements are full of visual flair and are some of this show’s most enjoyable sections, drawing distinction between the cute appropriateness of the adolescents dancing on TV with the Dirty Dancing-inspired physicality of the youngsters in Motormouth Records in the song Run and Tell That! Equally fun is a large cast segment for Welcome to the 60s as Tracy’s mum is transformed from housewife to glamour-puss while the addictive rolling rhythm of the grand finale’s You Can’t Stop the Beat is wonderful.

In a star-studded cast, it is actually some of the smaller roles that really impress. Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed has one of the strongest voices in the cast and delivers some incredibly slick dance moves, matched by Derek Hough’s Corny Collins, particularly in the routines for Ladies Choice and (It’s) Hairspray.

Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been is a superb balance of emotion and political determination while antagonists Dove Cameron as Amber and Kristin Chenoweth as her mother Velma are suitably vicious. Garrett Clayton may be a bit Zac Efron-lite as heartthrob Link but Maddie Baillio has plenty of optimistic determination as Tracy with a vocal performance that makes the most of the big numbers like Good Morning Baltimore and the inventively staged fantasy sequence for I Can Hear the Bells.

The show sags a little in the extended dialogue sections, impressing most when it rolls from song to song, but Leon creates just the right tone with a sugary colour scheme and saturated visuals. This irresistible musical has won such a place in people’s hearts and seeing three significant Tracy’s at the BFI was a reminder of just how influential this well-constructed show has been. Two films, multiple productions of the stage musical and this enjoyable TV movie, you really can’t stop the beat!

Available here until 31 May 2020

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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