Bursting onto the Hippodrome’s stage on its first British tour, Hairspray is an evening of infectious joy. It’s 1962, and big girl Tracy Turnblad dreams of becoming a star by winning a place on local TV dance programme The Corny Collins Show and catching the eye of heartthrob Link Larkin despite her size and outsider status.
Reminiscent of Grease if you aren’t familiar with it, Hairspray charts the obsessions, idealism and enormous hair of Baltimore teenagers in a decade when free love and racial integration were rewriting the rules of their parents’ worlds. As the ample Tracy, Laurie Scarth is perfect: ballsy and unfailingly positive with a rich voice that commands the stage.
Written by Marc Shaiman, creator of such guilty pleasures as ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’, the songs are irrepressibly catchy, without a weak one in the bunch.
Hairspray is a sort of musical makeover. We revel in the characters’ transformations into bigger, more confident versions of themselves (often in the form of bigger, more camp outfits as the show goes on).
It’s a testament to the love Hairspray inspires that its West End stars – musical theatre supremo Michael Ball, and Micky Dolenz of Monkees fame – have been lured away from London for the tour, which Ball is also associate producing. Playing the smaller parts of Tracy’s parents Edna and Wilbur - loving, embarrassing and dishevelled - the pair are the foundation of the show. Ball and Dolenz’s brilliant duet, ‘You’re Timeless to Me’, is a moment of perfection, bringing chemistry, giggles and adlibs that mark then out as true professionals.
Though it addresses issues like racial segregation, Hairspray is distinctly pantomime in tone. Rivalry between Tracy and the spoilt Amber who is desperate to win Miss Teen Hairspray are kept light with insults like “You have acne of the soul”. Even when Tracy and her friends wind up in jail the comic songs keep coming, lending a stand-alone power to a moment of still reflection on the struggle for civil rights in the beautiful ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, sung by record producer Motormouth Maybelle (Sandra Marvin).
Director Mark Hilton ensures the show flows effortlessly from scene to scene, never losing momentum. The effect is like receiving repeated shots of adrenaline: the actors burst with energy that their bodies can barely contain, through fantastic choreography from Jerry Mitchell. Admiration for their stamina alone made me feel an obligation to ‘shake and shimmy’ too. If I went in cheerful, I left ecstatic.