It is hard to credit that some preview punters failed to recognise Michael Ball as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Sure, he’s wearing dress and looks a few kilos overweight, but there’s no undue effeminacy in his performance, and none of the savage grotesquerie Harvey Fierstein brought to the role on Broadway, or the plasticized timorousness of John Travolta in the recent film of the musical.
Although that film is a brilliant translation of the stage musical (and a far cry from the art house, rackety ebullience of the John Waters 1988 original cult movie), the stage show is the real business in its hymn to racial integration in downtown Baltimore circa 1962, and its suddenly politically incorrect celebration of triumph in obesity.
A cynic might reflect that the Broadway version, now in its fifth fatty year, is a hit because it makes the New York audiences of out-of-towners – who get more obese by the minute – feel better, or at least not so bad, about themselves. But in the story of fat kid Tracy Turnblad, hooked on a local television talent show and bent on becoming Miss Teenage Hairspray, there is also a sense of a community, and indeed a nation, on the brink.
This is the brief interregnum of the Kennedy era. Even Edna “has a dream,” if only one of breaking out of her home laundry business into extra large haute couture. The brilliance of Marc Shaiman’s pop and blues score – not even half marks for originality, many for witty pastiche – is to capture this transitional period in music, too, as teenagers find their voices and protest songs seem like a good idea.
The show is also a cultural metaphor as Corny Collins’s television studio is invaded by Tracy’s new friends cross the line from detention class, exploding into the limelight with snake-hipped dance routines and unambiguously sexy gyrations.
And 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.