There are some touring productions you feel just about make it into town before the DVLA deem them unroadworthy. Not Hairspray. This technicolour trip back in time must have arrived in a fleet of gleaming Winnebagos headed up by Chevrolet outriders and a caravan crammed with props stolen from Lewis’s fifth floor salon. And the troupe, all starched polyester, plaids and Jackie Kennedy dresses, look anything but road weary.
Hairspray – Baltimore’s PR antidote to The Wire (Sure, the cast are all addicted. But for crack, read curlers) – is set in the US of 62. The hottest show in town, ‘The Corny Collins Show’, is looking for a new star. Plump teenager Tracy Turnblad (Dina Tree – understudy, and what a performance!) chases the dream, and learns some sassy moves from her black school friends ahead of the audition.
Along the way, Turnblad tackles racial segregation, gets the guy, and steals the show. But, hey, spoiler alerts aside, the real story here is that, Hairspray isn’t just another ugly duckling tale.
Unlike Grease, set just three years before, Hairspray turns on the fact that, while Olivia Newton John’s Sandy would have set fire to her parents to get those spray on satin pants (and African-Americans were only seen fit to polish John Travolta’s alloys in the long shots), the Hairspray world, for all its comedy grotesques, tackles the fact that while America in the late 50s/early 60s didn’t have a lot to sing and dance about, it’s just possible you could find a happy ending without diet pills if you followed your soul. Hairspray has a heart, a head, and (in the most surprising of places) balls too.
Hairspray could so easily have been a pastiche piece – all doo-wopping air-heads and camp pantomime – but John Waters (the man behind the original film) and composer Marc Shaiman are much too smart for that. Hairspray, the musical, and, for that matter the stuff that Herbert wafts about every Saturday, works its magic because, while it might look light and insubstantial, in the right hands, really has the power to hold fast and true.
The accomplished score tackles ‘wall of sound’ pop, gospel, Brat Pack showstoppers, soul, and straight-forward show tunes. The sound of America – all of America – is here. Hairspray is far more West Side Story than You’re The One That I Want. And it’s all the more, erm, rounded for it.
This touring production is a sheer joy from start to finish. The cast shimmer and fizz with energy, Michael Starke, as Edna Turnblad (Tracy’s larger than life laundry-fixated mom) is a revelation: giving us just enough ham to feast on, and turning a fine heel (and voice) to boot, and Les Dennis winningly warms up a part (Wilbur Turnblad, Edna’s husband) that really doesn’t offer much: their pitch-perfect ‘Timeless To Me’ duet deservedly brought the house down, and had the audience – and themselves – in tears.
Performance of the night, though, goes to Sandra Marvin (as Motormouth Maybelle, whose son is only allowed on TV during ‘Negro Day’) who delivers a spine-tingling ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ – an impassioned hymn to equality: the soul sister, we guess, of ‘I Am What I Am’.
Feeling that summer’s about to pass you by? Grab whatever tickets remain, and enjoy a late summer burst of life, colour and unfeasibly unnatural erections down at the Empire.
(PS: SevenStreets loved the irony of watching this celebration of diversity and difference while being surrounded by a thicket of emaciated, production-line Hollyoaks starlets. We wonder whether the irony was lost on them? Probably.)
Hairspray: until 4 September
The Empire, Lime Street