Hairspray is probably the closest that Broadway has ever come to producing a pantomime. Like Beauty and the Beast, it teaches us that we should look for the beauty in a person’s heart, not in their appearance, it features a comic villain that makes Cruella De Ville look like a spokesperson for the Dogs’ Trust and gives beloved British actors the chance to slip into a bra that could double up as a four-man tent.
Set against the growth of the Civil Rights movement, this witty and bitingly satirical show that asks its audience not to judge anyone by their looks but by the content of their character, paralleling the minor comedy of overweight schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad with the great social evil of institutional racism.
Teasing its audience as freely as Tracy teases her ratted hairdo, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s Tony Award-winning script plays with the modern notion of political correctness, contrasting 1960s prejudices with contemporary ones. Fast paced and fun, this is a show which constantly delights.
Marc Shaiman’s musical arrangements and Scott Whitman’s lyrics are an excellent coupling. Shaiman has composed a witty and insightful score that slowly evolves from the bubblegum pinks of Connie Francis to the midnight blues of Motown, subtly referencing sixties standards such as The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and eleven o’clock numbers from Gypsy. Every song in the show is instantly loveable and performed with fire by an incredible ensemble.
Newcomer Freya Sutton leads the cast with passion and power. Her voice, melodic and sweet, is tempered with a clever comic delivery, making the role her own without losing the spirit of the character. Mark Benton, too, steps into Edna Turnblad’s slippers with ease, finding the ridiculous in the character without losing her integrity and singing and dancing with the cast as well as any West End lead.
The greatest performance of the night, and, without exaggeration, one of the greatest performances which I have ever seen in a theatre, belongs to Sandra Marvin. Playing the part of Motormouth Maybelle, her performance of the torch song “I Know Where I’ve Been” is literally breathtaking. Physically and emotionally affecting, finding a rare poignancy, Marvin’s performance of this song is worth the ticket price along. Superlatives fail.
Jerry Mitchell’s fifties choreography sees girls bop-she-bop in the grubby streets of Baltimore, twist splendidly in the record shops of North Avenue. Each movement is flavoured with the dance floor rhythms of the era and is quite spectacularly lit by Kenneth Posner.
Hairspray is what happened whilst Sandy and Danny were off brushing their teeth, a fun and feisty picture of a world in flux which is endlessly entertaining from beginning to end. It is the perfect combination of music, movement and ensemble, a massive Broadway production with a heart bigger than Edna Turnblad’s unmentionables.