Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Whittman and Marc Shaiman
Director: Paul Kerryson
Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Musical Director: Liam Dunachie
Reviewer: Tim Frost
This energetic, colourful and raucous cartoon musical warms up a freezing April day in Canterbury. Although light on really great tunes and mostly bereft of decent dialogue, this popular slapstick show has a relentless optimism and youthful enthusiasm that is hard not to enjoy. It is also a plea for integration and for young people to just be able to lead lives in their own way.
Based on left-field director John Waters’ 1988 cult film, this 2002 stage version, in a more recent production by the Leicester Curve Theatre, has found a huge audience and spawned a subsequent big screen remake. Whereas the original film mostly used songs from the 1960s, the newer version consists of Marc Shaiman’s parody numbers. Most are efficiently forgettable although I can hear the bellsand You can’t stop the beatare decent songs with interesting harmonies and unexpected melodic twists.
Misfit Tracy Turnblad doesn’t have a great deal going for her: Overweight, always in detention and standing to inherit her mother’s ironing business (and perhaps her father’s joke shop). However, the Corny Collins Show, featuring Baltimore’s best young dancers (some of whom she is at school with), offers a ray of hope. Amazingly, she defies the wishes of the nasty producer Velma Von Tussle to gain a place on the show and to hook up with hunk Link (in the pink suit). The show only stars white teenagers except for once per month on ‘negro day’. Tracy Turnblad learns some great moves from her negro school friends during detention and her wish is that every day be ‘negro day’.
There is an extraordinary range of voices in the large cast and the solos are spread out between all the main characters. Freya Sutton, as Tracy Turnblad, is perfectly cast and is a capable singer. Her idol, Link Larkin, played by Ashley Gilmour, has a great voice and the whole ensemble manages to keep the energy levels maximised at all times. John Tsouras, as presenter Corny Collins, is a strong presence on the stage but it is really difficult to make out his words when singing. Dex Lee is an excellent Seaweed while Monique Young, playing Tracy’s friend Penny Pingleton, captures the camp perfectly in her journey from Tracy’s unconfident friend to trailblazing integrator. Brenda Edwards, as Motormouth Maybelle, is an outstanding singer and a magnetic stage personality, while top-billed Claire Sweeney is a suitably unlikeable Velma Von Tussle.
It was a revelation to discover (during the interval) that the tiny figure, Wilbur Turnblad, (tiny next to the extraordinarily massive Matt Rixon, playing Wilbur’s wife, Edna Turnblad), was actually Peter Duncan. The same Peter Duncan who thrilled my generation with his daring feats on Blue Peter in the 1980’s! And he can actually act. And sing! In fact, his hilarious, innuendo-rich Broadway-style duet with Rixon, You’re timeless to me,is the highlight of the show.
Set, costumes and props are full of colour and the dancing and acrobatics add to the exciting, fast-paced direction. The on-stage band are atouch overpowering at times (not necessarily their fault) but it was great to be able to see them. Hairspray isn’t ‘one of the greatest musicals ever written’ (as producer Mark Goucher claims in the programme) but it is a big-hearted show with a great cast and certainly the perfect tonic to early onset Autumn, wherever you are in the world.
Runs until Saturday 30 April2016 and continues to tour | Image: Ellie Kurtz