Hairspray – The New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Book: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Lyrics: Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman
Director: Paul Kerryson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight


It’s 1962 Baltimore. Almost a century after the abolition of slavery, seven years after Rosa Parks and other members of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People refused to give up their bus seats racial segregation is still rife. In every corner of society, black and white are kept apart, including television’s popular teen dance showThe Corny Collins Show. This show showcases new music and has a cast of young, squeaky clean and, except for one day a month, white teenage dancers who dance to the music of the day. The show goes out daily and is watched by the short and pleasantly plump Tracy Turnblad who dances around her living room with them. In detention one day for her unfeasibly high hairstyle, Tracy meets and is befriended by a group of black youngsters including Seaweed. Seaweed (Dex Lee) keeps his spirits up by dancing and Tracy quickly learns some new moves from him. When the opportunity arises to audition for one of the show’s dance rôles, Tracy decides to try out. Her mother, fearful of the potential for bullying and humiliation, forbids it, but her father, joke-shop owning Wilbur, encourages her in her dream.

Despite the show’s producer, racist and ambitious Velma Von Tussle, denying Tracy an audition, she is seen by Corny Collins. In Tracy, he sees a way of reaching out to more youngsters and she is in. Tracy’s desire to dance with all of her friends, black and white, together lead to her and her family and friends becoming unwitting civil rights activists and thrown in jail. Will Tracy get released in time to take on the superficial Amber in Miss Teenage Hairspray? Will handsome Link come good for Tracy or will he put his career first? And will The Corny Collins Show ever become racially integrated?

There are a lot of heavyweight themes in Hairspray. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of a racially segregated societybut is uplifting in its portrayal of a misfit girl seeking her dream. Its message that everyone has a talent and should be valued equally for it is a powerful one. But that doesn’t make it po-faced. It is a dazzling, fast-moving Technicolor production that has the audience rocking in their seats from the opening bars of Good Morning, Baltimore to the exuberant You Can’t Stop The Beat that closes the show. It is also thoughtful and thought-provoking.

The whole is held together by Freya Sutton’s portrayal of Tracy. Sutton has a ready smile, a terrific voice and great dance moves. She shows Tracy’s own zest for life and her enjoyment in the simplest things, together with the pain of her first crush. A monumental performance. Brenda Edwards puts in a powerful performance as Motormouth Maybelle, the black cohost of The Corny Collins Show on negro day and mother of Seaweed. Her rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been is a true showstopper. Additional light relief is provided by Tony Maudsley and Peter Duncan’s as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. The comedy in the Turnblad’s gloriously mismatched physicality is belied by the simply moving story of their understated but ever-present love for one another. Their song, You’re Timeless To Me is an unexpectedly moving paean to that.

Claire Sweeney and Lauren Stroud bring a comic-book element to Velma Von Tussle and her daughter, Amber, that takes the edge of their unremitting ambition and nastiness.

The pace is maintained by sharp direction from Paul Kerryson and crisp, often balletic, choreography from Drew McOnie. Smooth transitions are enabled by Paul Moore’s deceptively set design.

Hairspray, based on the film by John Waters and real events in Baltimore, is loud, brash, joyful, charming heart-warming and, perhaps unexpectedly, deep and moving.

Runs until2 January 2016 and on tour| Image: Ellie Kurttz

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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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