Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman
Director: Jack O’Brien
A year and a half’s worth of accrued West End energy burst onto the Coliseum stage last night at Hairspray’s opening. And the third-full audience matched it. There are faces old and new, an impeccable pink plastic set and a song list whipping up every emotion. The unshakable ecstasy almost distracts from some of this modern classic’s not so modern content.
Michael Ball reprises his role as Edna Turnblad in this hearty comedy set in 60s Baltimore. Think big to be big, is the message. Tracey Turnblad (Lizzie Bea) is a guileless but determined teenager trying to fit in, in order to break the seams. She lands her dream spot dancing on The Corny Collins Show. Her crush, the lacklustre Link (Jonny Amies), falls for her. Then, Tracey’s updo becomes a national icon. But Hairspray is more than your average teen movie; Tracey sets her sights on greater things – racial integration for the show.
Bea leads a talented cast with compelling chemistry. The vocals are exceptional throughout. Amies, along with Ashley Samuels (Seaweed), Mari McGinlay (Penny) and Kimani Arthur (Little Inez) are a force every lead needs behind them. Of course, Ball’s much-anticipated performance as Edna does not disappoint. Les Dennis playing husband Wilbur is less knock-your-socks-off, although his famed humorous charm is consistent.
A standing ovation for Marisha Wallace’s rendition of ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ as Motormouth Maybelle is more than deserved. When she takes the stage, centre or otherwise, it is testing to look at anything else; even David Rockwell’s dynamic set, for which the elaborate design matches the zest of every scene. Jack O’Brien’s direction and Jerry Michell’s choreographer weave perfectly from a stage brimming with speed, sound and colour to scenes of stripped back tenderness.
Favourites are so for a reason. Hairspray has perfected the recipe of a crowd-pleasing cocktail. As Ball said in his closing speech, the theatre was at a third of capacity last night, but the audience made enough noise for ten times its size. Yet, the benefit of reforming classics should not be overlooked. Some new jokes snub current politics. But with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and the call for white people to educate themselves on all the complexities of racism, the production retains much of Hairspray’s painfully dated content. The white saviour complex it depicts is not activism worth clapping for. Even in the West End.
Hopefully, think big to be big will soon be translated for contemporary audiences. For now though, the rapture of Hairspray is the welcome back we needed for the West End.
Runs until 29 September 2021