Review: Hairspray (Birmingham Hippodrome)

Rebecca Mendoza stars as Tracy Turnblad in this heart-warming musical in which good wins over evil

Hairspray the Musical is fun, feisty and, on first glance, frivolous. Centred on one girl’s dream to win television talent show Miss Teenage Hairspray, it’s a bubble gum musical of sweetness and air. And yet Hairspray also has plenty of bite as, when she turns her sights on television stardom, teenager Tracy Turnblad also fights institutional racism on the small screen.

Set in 1960s Baltimore in the United States of America, Hairspray is based very loosely on real events when a teenage dance and song show which had prevented black and white teenagers dancing together was forced to change by public opinion.

But while the messages of tolerance and understanding are at the heart of Hairspray, it’s anything but a preachy or dowdy musical. With great songs, plenty of lively dance and lashings of humour, it’s a heart-warming tale in which good wins over evil and everyone lives happily ever after.

Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza sings and acts her heart out as the teenager Tracy. In a performance packed full of energy, her Tracy is cute and loveable but with an iron will to fight injustice when she sees it. As an overweight teen, Tracy is quick to jump to the defence of others she sees as victims of society’s refusal to accept difference.
She’s given fantastic comedy backing by Norman Pace as her kindly dad Wilbur and Matt Rixon as hefty mum Edna. The two complement each other despite the fact that Rixon is nearly twice the size of his stage husband – and their duet "You’re Timeless to Me" is a highlight laced with gentle affection.

Brenda Edwards belts out the songs as Motormouth Maybelle – the black DJ who sees in Tracy a way to achieve equality. And Layton Williams is a coiled spring as her son Seaweed, the youngster who first invites Tracy to cross the tracks. Oozing charisma as he schmoozes across the dance floor, Williams charms not just Tracy but the audience as well.

Opposing the youngsters’ starry-eyed dreams of full integration is television show producer Velma Von Tussle who is determined to keep black and white youngsters apart. Gina Murray’s Velma is nasty and vindictive but she also plays the role with a touch of the pantomime baddy so that when all her plans go awry, it draws laughs rather than any real desire to see her receive her just deserts.

Drew McOnie‘s choreography keeps the show moving at a fast pace while Takis’ sets and costumes are bright, colourful and take us straight back to the sixties.

Directed by Paul Kerryson, Hairspray is a feel-good show. With easily memorable songs like "Good Morning Baltimore", "Welcome to the 60s" and "You Can’t Stop the Beat", it rapidly has the audience on its feet as soon as they can join in.

Hairspray plays Birmingham Hippodrome until October 14 and continues to tour until June 2018.