It’s 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA and slightly larger than some other young teenagers her age Tracy Turnblad (Freya Sutton) dreams of pretty much one thing and that is to dance on the local “The Corny Collins Dance Show”. After initial failure and more detention at school, Tracy meets fellow detainee student Seaweed (Dex Lee) and his other mainly black friends who show Tracy some new dance moves. This is legally racially segregated America in 1962, and black dancers are only allowed on the “Corny Collins Dance Show” on Negro Day by order of show producer Velma Von Tussle (Claire Sweeney). With the new moves, Tracy does get her shot at fame and becomes a television star and decides to use her new found fame to fight segregation her way – by integration and dancing. Tracy, like many other young girls watching the show, is head over heels in love with the show’s Elvis-like singer Link Larkin (Ashley Gilmour). The other big thing of course in her life is her hair and the hairspray she uses on it –probably “Ultra Clutch”, hairspray sponsors of the show.
There is obviously more to the story than this, or it would never have been two movies and a stage show, but it is pretty much the essence of it – using a lot of dance, music and comedy to also bring to life a little bit of the struggle for racial equality in the USA at this time and putting it under the spotlight for a new generation to examine.
Hairspray has so much going for it as a show to start with for me. It is set in 1962, one of my favourite periods of music in the USA. A fairly special musical time – lots of High School dance music (but much of it definitely for a white audience) and the start of all the Motown girl groups and sounds that we know so well. A very short period too for some of the music, as in a few years’ time The Beatles would wipe much of it away with their first USA tour.
Also, “Hairspray” the musical manages the very difficult task of having new music and lyrics (Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman) but having them done in an authentic early 1960s style, and it is this great music to the show that gives everyone the platform to dance round and build upon.
But, “Hairspray” is a bit of an odd musical in one respect and that is that the star of the show Tracy Turnblad (Freya Sutton) is to me never the strongest character or most interesting character in the show. Neither does she get some of the best lines or songs, so although Freya does fine on songs like “Good Morning Baltimore” and holds the story together in great style, her character does so easily blend into the background a bit with others.
If there is a real star character to the show it is probably Tracy’s overweight mother Edna Turnblad (Tony Maudsley). Making this character a male actor always works for some reason, and her father Wilbur (Peter Duncan) always makes a great visual match against Edna as he is so much smaller and thinner, but he loves Edna even more than his local joke shop the “Hardy-Har Hut”. For me, Tony and Peter get to steal this whole show with that wonderful classic vaudeville song and dance routine to “You’re Timeless To Me”. There is just so much warmth and humour in this number.
Dex Lee as “Seaweed” also stands out in this show as the very cool and almost rubber-bodied dancer who teaches Tracy her new “black” moves. Seaweed is also the son of local downtown record shop owner and “Negro Day” dance show host Motormouth Maybelle – played tonight by Brenda Edwards who gets that very powerful civil rights song “I Know Where I’ve Been” to sing and gets a huge round of applause from the audience here for her rendition of it.
Seaweed also commits with Tracy’s geeky friend Penny Pingleton (Played tonight by Natasha Mould) the ultimate sin of the time – a mixed race relationship, and both of them handle this well.
Seaweed also has a little sister – Little Inez (Karis Jack) whose audition for the dance show gets rejected immediately on racial grounds. Karis Jack gets to steal so much of the show with her portrayal of this character.
Link Larkin as the show’s “Budding Elvis” gives Ashley Gilmour the chance to do justice to a few good songs and also some interesting lines as he switches his love allegiance from Amber Von Tussle (Lauren Stroud) to Tracy.
Claire Sweeney as Velma Von Tussle gets the chance here to have a bit of fun with her portrayal as not only the manipulative producer but also mother to Amber, and their horror at even coming near black people is done in a light way that makes its point and makes them both look so “of the period for some people”.
Jon Tsouras as “Corny Collins” show host is also interesting as he tries to open up the show to a more integrated platform, but his character never really gets enough on stage time to develop this aspect of the role properly
This show is of course also tackling the far bigger issues of educating new audiences to at least a tiny bit of the struggles of Black Americans in 1960s USA and it has to tread a very fine line here too because giving the impression that all black people of the time did nothing but sing and dance can also be just as prejudiced (think here also of great writers like James Baldwin for example) if not handled carefully (and it is handled with some care here).
Everyone in the audience tonight will probably have heard of Martin Luther King Jnr, but I’m not sure how much relevance the equally notable campaigner Rosa Parks (famously fighting segregation on even public transport buses) is to many British audiences.
“Hairspray” is a musical and has some great music and dance numbers in it, but more importantly it is just full of fun and energy from start to finish and just a fun night out
Review byTom King