The award-winning hit musical, Hairspray, opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre last night (30 October, previews from 11 October) starring Michael Ball (pictured) and Leanne Jones as Edna Turnblad and her daughter Tracy Turnblad respectively (See WOS TV, 30 Oct 2007). The production is currently booking to 15 March 2008.
Hairspray premiered in August 2002 at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theater, where it’s still running, going on to win eight 2003 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Based on John Waters' cult retro 1988 film and set in 1960s Baltimore, it tells the story of geeky overweight teen Tracy, who finds celebrity on a TV dance programme. Can she get the guy and still have time to change the world?
The musical has a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Whitman and Shaiman. It’s directed by Jack O'Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. The film of the musical was released in the UK this summer. In addition to Ball and Jones, the cast includes Mel Smith, Tracie Bennett, Rachel Wooding, Paul Manuel, Adrian Hansel, Johnnie Fiori and Any Dream Will Do’s Ben Ellis.
It’s official! A critical hit for the Shaftesbury! Hairspray well and truly won over the first night critics yesterday as they welcomed the show that is “ecstatic” and “riotous”. Special praise was thrown on Michael Ball who was “deliciously fattened up and dragged down”, but newcomer Leanne Jones also caught the critic’s attention “with a talent as high and wide as her scooped-up hair”. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman didn’t escape the cascade of praise as their music and lyrics were commended for pulsating “with musical excitement as well as political anger”. The hit that has eluded the Shaftsbury for so long looks to have arrived as the audience glimpse what the critics consider is a truly entertaining production.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “The ecstatic choreography of Jerry Mitchell combines with the delightful, primary-coloured costumes of Broadway veteran William Ivey Long to create a riotous scene at the oversize shop where mother and daughter are kitted out in style and the resident mannequins include a Supremes tribute trio. Director Jack O’Brien has tapped adventurously into the British talent pool, not only in giving the richly voiced Michael Ball a role to relish, but teaming him with the wonderfully rumpled Mel Smith as the toyshop owner husband – he brings a battered vaudevillian charm to their “Timeless to Me” duet – as well as discovering the powerhouse talent of Leanne Jones as Tracy. Tracie Bennett makes a good impression, too, as the vampiric television producer, and Elinor Collett and Adrian Hansel are a dynamic duo on the dance floor where the beat you can’t stop erases the social divide. This is indeed a rare thing: a totally daffy and delightful musical where the serious issues are as good for you as a big stick of pink candyfloss.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Where the show really scores is in its ability to integrate serious issues into a lightweight plot. Jerry Mitchell's joyous choreography is the beating heart of the show. There is something dionysiac about it; and, if the show achieves the ecstasy one looks for in a musical, it comes largely through the dance routines. But the performances, in Jack O'Brien's deliciously fluid production, underline the show's basic benevolence. Leanne Jones is a remarkable Tracy with a talent as high and wide as her scooped-up hair. She puts across Marc Shaiman's numbers with belting brio. And Michael Ball is very funny as her muscular moll of a mum who once entertained dreams of being a designer. "I thought I was going to be the biggest thing in brassieres," Ball announces in gravel-voiced tones. What makes him so good is that he reminds us that heftiness is not incompatible with haute couture. Mel Smith, as Tracy's joke-retailing dad, seems underemployed until he joins Ball in a front-cloth duo.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “If you are up for a good time, however, and especially if you are a teenage girl who has just downed a couple of alcopops, it will strike you as heaven on earth. You will laugh, you will scream, you might even shed a sentimental tear or two. I even managed to make quite a night of it myself, and I'm male and middle-aged, as the National Theatre boss, Nicholas Hytner, is fond of pointing out … A superb pop score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which gloriously captures the sounds of pop before the arrival of the Beatles – girl groups, rock and roll, rhythm and blues and an amazing gospel number that almost lifts the roof off the theatre … Director Jack O'Brien ensures that sentiment and laughter are mixed in just the right proportions in a show that offers a sugar-rush of pleasure … I saw Hairspray at the final preview rather than the press night, and the audience's whooping response and spontaneous standing ovation suggest it could prove to be the big hit that has eluded the Shaftesbury for so long.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “It comes at us in rare musical parts: the first part is low-camp satire and burlesque: Michael Ball deliciously fattened up and dragged down in bland frocks and lurid gowns, majestically slips into the role of the fat, foghorned laundress, Edna Turnblad ... It is through Jones's endearingly earnest Tracy, who dances with a lightness belying her size, that links between love, comedy and radical politicsare forged … Marc Shaiman's urgent score, with clever, often witty lyrics written with Scott Whitman, keeps Hairspray pulsating with musical excitement as well as political anger. And Leanne Jones, as smitten, adolescent lover and Miss Teenage Hairspray, effortlessly commands the stage. She will hearten all actresses who imagine that only the pencil-thin can inherit the lead dressing room.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (five stars) - "Tracy herself is played by newcomer Leanne Jones, on stage for most of the night as the compulsive dancer whose natural padding cannot spoil her lust for life – or for Link. It’s an impressive, exuberant performance and you can see why the director says she was instantly right for the role. She is well supported by a large cast, including fellow newcomer Ben James-Ellis – a semi-finalist in TV’s Any Dream Will Do – as Link; the ever-wonderful Tracie Bennett as the vicious Velma Von Tussle; a gob-smacking Johnnie Fiori as the black record shop-owner Motormouth Maybelle; and the rubber-faced Mel Smith as Tracy’s salt-of-the-earth dad Wilbur. But the stand-out turn is Ball, scarcely recognisable in the drag role as Tracy’s mother Edna, complete with 54EEE bust … Don’t expect fancy effects or clever spectacle. This is good, honest song-and-dance fun, where the riot of period pastels in the costumes and sets matches the relentless up-beat of the lyrics and tunes. “Prepare for something big!” say the posters: “Big musical, big comedy, big hair!” But the biggest thing about it, apart from Michael Ball’s falsies, is its heart."
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (four stars) “The musical is as delightful as I recall it being on Broadway three years ago and more immediate than it could ever be in the cinema. True, the tale of chubby, chunky Tracy Turnblad, who wears what looks like a lacquered wolverine on her head and thinks she resembles Jackie Kennedy, is unashamedly and, at times, absurdly sentimental. But when Leanne Jones’ Tracy is bounding about the stage exuding all-American resilience and optimism — well, she brought out the inner cheerleader I didn’t know I had … Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book is a salute to difference. That’s defined both as being fat, like Jones’s Tracy or Michael Ball as her gloriously bloated mother, and, more seriously, as being black in racially divided Maryland. So our heroine’s aim isn’t only to do well on the dance floor, beating her plastic-doll schoolmate Amber, but to integrate Corny Collins’s show, besting Amber’s ruthlessly ambitious, racially bigoted mother, Velma.”
- by Tom Atkins & Katie Jackson