Monday 16th July 2018 at the Grand Opera House, York.
I left the theatre after Hairspray wanting to turn around and go straight back in again. With book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and a lucrative history of successes, Hairspray remains a giant in the musical theatre world. It’s a truly special piece of musical theatre with a brilliant score and a worthy storyline; in this particular production, it also features dizzying talent across the cast. Dealing with teenage love, lust and music obsession in a changing era defined by segregation and desegregation, Hairspray carries a great responsibility to do justice to the more serious aspects of the plot alongside what is a thoroughly upbeat and beautifully comical tale. This musical delivers it all, and does so with giant measures of energy and charm. It’s playful and defiant, comi-tragic and droll – an absolute joy to watch.Rosie O’Hare is a dream in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, taking the role of awkward teen to new heights with a performance which raises ear to ear grinning, smirks and belly laughs throughout. A powerful vocalist and endearingly quirky comic actress, she sets the tone, pace and calibre from the moment she belts out the first verse of Good Morning Baltimore. Vocal strength matches comic strength and her performance of I can Hear the Bells marries both talents perfectly. O’Hare’s fantastic facial expressions deserve mention here too- hilarious when channelling teenage infatuation and endearing when poised with sincerity. O’Hare’s is a performance bereft of vanity and totally invested in the oddball charm of her exuberant character. As Tracy’s comically masculine mother Edna Turnblad, Matt Rixon is an impressive and lovable force. Delivering all of the physical gags as the larger woman and as a manly woman with flair, Rixon is a real pleasure to watch. Graham MacDuff plays Tracy’s father Wilbur Turnblad with the running joke of the incongruous match very much in mind. Statures are forcibly emphasised and MacDuff’s Wilbur is both romantic and realist enough to raise big laughs. As a duo, Rixon and MacDuff almost stopped the show with an expertly handled prop malfunction which had the audience in hysterics – hysterics which were only doubled and redoubled by the pair’s ad-libbed do-over. Launching into You’re Timeless to Me shortly after, they secured roaring applause and foot stomping.The plot of Hairspray is rather simple, which is the source of its beauty. Tracy and best pal Penny are gaga for the Corny Collins (Jon Tsouras) show which features song and dance from the hip local youth. The girls watch every afternoon until Tracy decides to try her luck auditioning to be on TV rather than in front of it. Caring not a jot that her figure does not mimic the svelte young girls on the screen, Tracy defies expectations to follow her dream. She has a love of music, a passion for dance and a determination to be a part of something super cool…and to meet the object of her breathless teen crush, The Elvis-esque singer Link Larkin (played as tortured and conflicted but with a heart of gold by Dan Partridge). Tracy soon finds herself as much an outsider as the black youngsters she sees in detention thanks to uppity producer Velma Von Trussie (Lucinda Lawrence) who takes show mom to the extreme as she pushes her daughter Amber (played hilariously as a spoilt madam by Gemma Lawson) to the top of the local showbiz ladder rung by viciously-gained rung. Once Tracy finds connections with her fellow detainees through dance, her love of music grows in step with her growing sense of injustice that black teenagers can’t dance with her – she makes a decision: integration must happen. And so our young protagonist takes up the mantle of activist and from here meets with a variety of entertaining characters and comical situations…Hungry for more music, more fun and more freedom than ever before, Tracy befriends the guy with all the rhythm to be found in Baltimore: Seaweed. Shak Gabbidon-Williams plays the role as sharply witty but warm, with feet that just won’t keep still and a dry sarcasm to combat the injustice he faces daily. Luckily for Seaweed, Tracy’s pal Penny Pingleton begins to feel herself rebelling away from the restrictive roots of her uber-Christian, pro-segregation home and mother. Annalise Liard-Bailey does an excellent job of introducing Penny as a squeaky, high pitched nerd who sees the confidence of Tracy as mind blowingly awesome before morphing into someone as equally rebellious and inspiring. Genevieve Nicole is BRILLIANT in each minor role she plays, mastering physical comedy and delighting with an array of comical voices – she is particularly brilliant when playing Penny’s super strict mother and the jail orderly. So funny is Nicole that her brief scenes left me with an aching face – I hope to see much more of her in the future.
Brenda Edwards is a glorious force as local record shop owner and producer of ‘Negro Day’ at the network, Motormouth Maybelle. Motormouth is a beacon in her community and sees no colour and makes no judgement when it comes to youngsters in love. Edwards is equally affecting when performing emotive scenes as she is when projecting female power like the fiercest of lionesses, with a roar in her singing voice to match her fiery, powerful characterisation. Worldly and full of heart while living in obscenely unjust times, Motormouth performs one of the most moving songs to be found in Hairspray: I Know Where I’ve Been. It’s a siren song of a change-seeker, an ode to the strength of days gone by and a call to arms for what’s to come; Brenda Edwards performs the song with a grit, wisdom and mounting power which demands adulation for all that the song represents, and she gets it from an appreciative, spellbound audience.Director Paul Kerryson and Choreographer Drew McOnie must surely go about their daily lives with a spring in their step knowing that they’ve created such a lively, joyous show as this. McOnie’s choreography celebrates the various popular music styles of the era but excels when it comes to those classic synchronised, affected sixties movements and big boppy ensemble numbers. The musical numbers and agility of the cast set this production apart; every movement is perfected and sweet little transitions are delivered in perfect unison, as is gloriously presented by Wilbur and Edna in their outrageously brilliant rendition of You’re Timeless to Me. The music of Hairspray is also wonderful of course, and serves the story rather than distracting from it, as is the case with some modern musicals. Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman’s songs are as vibrant as every other production feature here and each key character has a chance to shine. O’Hare, Lawson and Liard-Bailey impress very early on with a playfully whiny but skilfully sung Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now. Lawrence gives showstopping notes in Velma’s Revenge and the whole cast send musical fireworks out into the audience with a rip-roaring finale performance of You Can’t Stop the Beat. Costume design from Takis captures sixties trends and reflects the vibrancy of the characters and songs perfectly while set design is simple and slick, with recurring set pieces appearing and disappearing with impressive fluidity, matching the polished impression exuding from every corner of this production.
There is no weak link here. No naff song, no sub-par performances, no awkward segues between songs or spurious plot lines. There’s not a hair out of place, nor toe poorly tapped nor bum note hit – this is a slick, joyous, energetic and perfected touring production, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. My only wish now is for a cast recording from this particularly gifted bunch…and maybe a tour extension…
Hairspray is presented by Mark Goucher, Matthew Gale and Laurence Myers. It plays at the Grand Theatre and Opera House, York until Saturday 21st July 2018 and you can find tickets here. The production will then continue touring the UK until 4th August 2018 and you can find tickets here.