Stagecraft: Libretto: Performance:
Freya Sutton made a perfect Tracy Turnblad, even if her classic opening number, ode to inner sunshine and unbridled optimism, ‘Good Morning Baltimore’, was slightly tentative. Her star wattage shone brighter in each scene as the show continued; when singing, acting or dancing. In fact, the entire cast increasingly sparkled as the true story of racial integration on a teenage TV dance show in Baltimore, 1962 unfolded in its full sequinned and bee-hived glory. Enthusiastic kids, teens and nanas packed the theatre, many singing along to the lyrics, clapping and dancing along to its joyful crescendo.
Familiar with both films, I had to make a conscious effort to take the theatre production on its own terms. It didn’t disappoint. The characters were cleverly integrated into early dance scenes so that they were already familiar to the audience by the time each had a speaking role. The costumes were suitably kitsch; from the ugly-chic plaid dresses of the girls to the glitter suits and slick hairstyles of the boys. There were times where the particular combinations of colour and choreography were confusing to the eye, but it expressed well the tumults, conflicts and restless energy of the youth living through swiftly-changing times. The set itself wasn’t massively ambitious, but was authentic for a period drama, especially the set of the TV studio itself.
Regional American accents can be a little tricky to hit, but apart from a couple of swerves further towards the American South or even back to England, they were generally on target. Tony Maudsley’s unashamedly husky tones fused with his character Edna Turnblad’s frumpy housecoat and large busoms to create a pantomime dame that we could root for; the perfect wife for the exuberant Wilbur Turnblad (Peter Duncan). Ex-beauty queen Velma Von Tussle (Claire Sweeney) and her spoilt daughter Amber (Lauren Stroud) were firmly dislikeable, but as the symbols of white supremacy and hate, they could have been played with a touch more menace.
Comic moments belonged to both Tony Maudsley and understudy Natasha Mould in the role of Tracy’s awkward sidekick Penny Pingleton. Her slapstick was expertly handled through her body language, making it difficult to take your eyes away from her, and easy to rejoice in her liberation from her unhinged mother’s mental (and physical) shackles, going on to blossom in her taboo inter-racial romance with Seaweed. Tony Maudsley’s Edna Turnblad became ever more endearing as the show continued, and morphed into a weirdly believable character in the delightful dance she does with her husband in one of my favourite numbers, ‘You’re timeless to me’.
Confident charmer Seaweed (Dex Lee) and lively, wonderful dancer Little Inez (Karis Jack) both oozed charisma. The backing dancers were also highly talented, with Layton Williams, well known to us as Stephen from TV’s ‘Bad Education’, particularly noteworthy. Ashley Gilmour made a realistic and likeable heartthrob in Tracy’s unlikely love, Link. Freya Sutton in the lead kept up a sizzling, electric energy that ultimately carried the whole show, and toned it down just enough at the right moments to keep us engaged, as when she’s in solitary confinement trying hard to keep the faith.
The enduring message of freedom hit home with Brenda Edward’s incredibly strong performance as Motormouth Maybelle. Already a powerful and glamorous stage presence, she stunned the audience with a goose-bump inducing rendition of ‘I know where I’ve been’ in Act 2. The play is loosely based on a true incident, and even though in real life the show was cancelled, black and white youth coming together to overthrow segregation played a part in changing the status of African-Americans in Maryland. Hairspray: The Musical kept its promise as a heart-warming tale of people coming together to fight for justice and unity, thrilling the audience with its lavish, glittering finale, ‘You can’t stop the beat’.
Reviewer: Lisa Williams