The phenomenon that is Hairspray has wafted into Southampton as the latest stop on its UK tour, and has been greeted with a rapturous reception from a capacity audience.
There is no doubt that this production has brought with it a legion of admiring fans, who surely know every line of every song and who are up on their feet almost from the first bars of “Good Morning Baltimore”, which opens the first half. However, it is impossible for even those most hard-bitten cynics – such as myself – not to be won over by the sheer joy, optimism and high energy in this, the ultimate “feel good” show.
My first exposure to this story – that of plump teenager Tracy Turnblad who dreams of dancing on the local Corny Collins show and becoming “Miss Teenage Hairspray” whilst winning the heart of the handsome, would-be heartthrob Link Larkin – was in the 1980s cult movie version, which starred infamous drag-queen Divine (Harris Milstead), in the seminal role of mother Edna Turblad. To say that I was less than taken with it would be an understatement, and as a result of that experience, managed to avoid both the recent movie remake with John Travolta, and the entire London run of this hugely successful stage adaptation. I can now say that I am truly converted to the cause.
Where I know the stage version has it’s knockers (no pun intended) amongst the devotees of the film versions, what you have in the stage show is an extra-ordinary transformation into a huge and celebratory mainstream musical, which manages to engage not only with the young – who must be encouraged into live theatre at all costs – but with the older patrons too.
Set in Baltimore in 1962, the plot deals with some complex issues such as the racial prejudices and segregation of black Americans, and discrimination based on physical appearance. In battling her way through adversity, Tracy finds herself in the front line doing her bit to campaign against intolerance and drags her reluctant mother from the domestic surroundings she has been imprisoned in for 20 years, along for the ride.
Laura Scarth as Tracy fills the stage with a performance full of unshakeable all-american enthusiasm, and enormous energy, and is supported by a delightfully nerdy best-friend in Penny Pingleton Emma Dukes. Gillian Kirkpatrick and Clare Halse as Velma Von Tussle, and her toxic daughter Amber, make hilarious and grotesque “villains” while Sandra Marvin as the aptly named Motormouth Maybelle quite literally stops the show with her power-house delivery of the anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been”.
It’s fair to say that the male characters are a bit under-served with all the larger-than-life females around, but Danny Bayne, as Corny Collins, Liam Doyle, as Link Larkin and Wayne Robinson, as Seaweed all manage to shine. Les Dennis makes a warm and engaging Wilbur, Tracy’s eccentric but kindly father, and makes the perfect foil to Michael Ball as his wife Edna. Their sublime pairing in the duet “Timeless to Me” is both hilarious and poignant, with their middle-aged love imitating the youthful romance of their daughter and both performers wring every ounce of comedy out of the situation.
And what can you say about Michael Ball’s performance? It is clearly the role of his lifetime, and he is relishing every moment of it. Firmly in the Danny-La Rue “bloke in a frock” mould, you never forget that this is a man inside a magnificent fat suit – but that is the point. Ball manages to avoid an out-and-out panto performance, and brings an element of sensitivity and pathos to dilute an otherwise outrageously camp creation.
Perhaps the real stars of the show though are the incredibly infectious score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and the high-energy dance routines, choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, which bring the whole auditorium up on their feet for the finale, with “You Can’t Stop The Beat”.