Hairspray – Milton Keynes Theatre

Reviewer: Kerrie Walters

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Music: Marc Shaiman.

Lyrics: Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman

Director: Paul Kerryson

Since opening in August 2002, Hairspray has become one of the most adored musicals on Broadway and in the West End. It is the story of Tracy, an awkward young lady on a crusade to teach 1962 Baltimore a lesson in humanity and acceptance. After winning a spot on a TV show for dancers, she uses her fame as a platform to campaign for racial integration. While segregation came to an end in the 1960s, many of the themes presented in this show still feel very relevant today.

The set is minimal with two brick garage-style structures jutting out of the wings which allow for different sets to be pushed on and off. This works well and allows the action to remain fluid.

The orchestra is exposed on set, cleverly as part of the TV show. This adds a component of diegetic sound that is not usually part of a musical.  Similarly, the lighting design slots in very well within this production. Bright bold and glitzy, it adds a real party atmosphere to proceedings, particularly within the scenes that are based within the TV studio set.

The touring production does have a few revisions from both the West End show and the musical movie portrayals – both the 2007 John Travolta movie and the 2016 production Hairspray Live starring Kristen Chenoweth and Ariana Grande. The Dynamites have a far reduced role in this production and Motormouth Maybelle doesn’t get much of an opportunity to stand up to Velma von Tussle.

Drew McOnie’s reworked choreography, however, is effervescent. Each cast member delivers a strong clean and graceful performance of it, particularly Rebecca Thornhill who, as Velma, moves with ferocity. Often having to sing whilst being lifted into the most uncomfortable yet visually impressive shapes, her dancing is poised and graceful and she really nails the physicality of Velma von Tussle.

One constant is the role of Edna Turnblad, which continues the tradition of being played by a male actor initiated by Drag Queen Divine in the 1988 film and then John Travolta in the 2007 musical adaptation. Alex Bourne takes the role and looms large over proceedings as Tracy’s plus-sized and formidable mother. He is a force to be reckoned with and steals many scenes. On this occasion, Paul Hutton replaced Norman Pace as a brilliant Wilbur. He has an instinctive gift for comedy timing and more than once has the audience bent double with laughter. There is an electric chemistry between his Wilbur and Bourne’s Edna that feels extremely natural and really translates on stage. Their big number You’re Timeless to Me is both titillating and extremely funny. The physical difference in height between these two actors only enhances the comedy elements.

Katie Brace, in her professional debut, brings a winning combination of clumsy charisma and feisty fierceness as the well-meaning troublemaker Tracy, who just wants to make the world a better place – and be noticed by leading man Link Larkin (Ross Clifton) along the way. She’s a vocal powerhouse and has the dance moves to match as she sings her way to fame, romance and the end of racial segregation in Baltimore. There is an excellent chemistry with her on-stage parents with whom she creates some exquisitely timed comedy moments.

Zoe Heighton does a stellar job as Penny, the somewhat stifled daughter of an extremely religious and overbearing mother and Tracy’s best friend. She has a weightless physicality and performs the choreography with laser precision. Her voice is gorgeous, particularly in Without Love.  She and Akeem Ellis-Hyman as Seaweed have a believable connection onstage and their chemistry really punches.

Charlotte St Croix is mesmerising as Little Inez. She is explosive and energetic, quite literally bouncing from scene to scene. Her physical execution of the choreography is captivating and her smile in every scene is infectious. The perfect casting for this part.

From the moment that Brenda Edwards marches on stage as Motormouth, she is here to take charge of the action. She has a commanding stage presence and dominates scene after scene. Her rendition of Big, Blonde and Beautiful is stunning and draws the first act to a close on a climax. Her rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been in the second act is soulful and flawless. The score of this show really plays to her strength and her performance is assured and dynamic.

Ultimately this show is a feel-good slice of escapism that will leave you dancing in the aisles.

Runs until 4 December 2021 and touring

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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