‘What gives a girl power and punch? Is it charm? Is it poise? No, it’s hairspray!’ This Hairspray has plenty of punch from its performances, but is light on the power and poise and falls, well, a little flat.
Tracy Turnblad is a ‘big’ girl with some big dreams – to dance, and get out of detention – and her gritty, if ditsy, determination to do so is set against the backdrop of segregation and discrimination in sixties Baltimore. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score has moments of luminous amusement, from the shouts and shakes of showstopper ‘Run and Tell That’, to the body-and-black-positive belter ‘Big, Blonde, and Beautiful’, to the bold exuberance of the show’s close, ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’. All this is fun, but the musical force is in its protest anthem, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, that reflects its politics, and it’s a powerhouse performance from Brenda Edwards’s respected, motherly Motormouth Maybelle that ends triumphantly with all hand-in-hand.
Yet, the force of Hairspray is blunted by its own flashy brashness, and the focus feels as though it’s on all the wrong colours: the bright, bubblegum ball-gowns and garish, gaudy lighting obscure the heart ofHairspray and its historical background. Whilst there’s colour in the cast and costumes and musical score – with tastes of Motown and rhythm and blues – there’s also ‘colour’ in the script, and it’s uncomfortable to see that the show has kept its slurs while eschewing any real reflection on their use. If Hairspray were a more politically centred period piece, the ‘realism’ of racial slurs may have a place here, but it doesn’t ever take itself that seriously, and as such, their presence earns little redemption even with segregation seemingly resolved.
Despite what may be lacking in design or direction, the dancing, with dynamic and damn cool choreography from Drew McOnie, and dancers lift the production, with Layton Williams’s Seaweed singing, spinning, and springing into the spotlight from a solid company. Elsewhere, his love, Annalise Liard-Bailey is a perfectly perky Penny Pingleton, the strong and soulful Dynamites, Emily-Mae, Melissa Nettleford, and Lauren Concannon, shine bright, and Rebecca Mendoza makes a zingy leading lady as Tracy Turnblad. Mr and Mrs Turnblad’s ditty ‘You’re Timeless To Me’, with Matt Rixon, as is tradition, in drag as Tracy’s mother and Norman Pace a diminutive but doting husband, is hilarious if only because it goes a little west, but they hold it together and earn a well-deserved hand for it.
Hairspray is fun, but it feels like it has so much more heart than that: perhaps some hairspray right at the roots would stop it falling flat.
Written by @_LeahTozer