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Big, Blonde and Beautiful – the description by David Cradduck of ‘Hairspray The Musical’ – The Mayflower, Southampton
Big, Blonde and Beautiful. Not just the first act finale of Hairspray, but apt adjectives to describe the show itself, along with a few of the cast of this year-long UK tour.
Add to that: Brave, Brash, Blousy before moving on to the Cs – Colourful, Clever and Classy. In fact you could probably find words starting with nearly every letter in the alphabet to describe this upbeat ensemble piece that, on the face of it, is like a feel-good sister to that other hair embellishment, Grease.
Always at the centre of the action is plump, bubbly Tracy Turnbald, the high school kid whose driving ambition is to dance on the ‘Corny Collins TV Show’ and against all the odds becomes a high school idol with an eye for Link Larkin, the heart-throb dancer (Edward Chitticks, in great form). It is almost unbelievable that this lead role is the professional debut for recently graduated Rebecca Mendoza, who captures the audience from the start with her infectious, crazy, energetic portrayal of Tracy. Her facial expressions are brilliant, she sure can dance and sing and – for the first half of the show at least – she is hardly ever offstage.
But Hairspray’s 1960s Baltimore backdrop is more than just a colourful snapshot of the frivolous teenage ambitions of the era. This is a story that deals, in a serious but lighthearted way, with issues like racism and fattism. This is the age of overt segregation in virtually all walks of life, of real and harmful prejudice and ignorance. It is the era that saw Martin Luther King fight to heal “the festering wounds of a nation’s original sin” (Senator Barack Obama, 2006). Some 60 years later, Baltimore unbelievably still bears witness to riots caused by such discrimination.
Only once a month, The ‘Corny Collins TV Show Negro Day’ is reluctantly given over to black talent but then with no white kids in sight. Despite glitzy host Collins’ enlightened attitude, white sponsors, TV owners and bigoted producers see to that. Gina Murray is wonderful as Velma Von Tussle, the Cruella-like ex-Miss Baltimore diva with the determination and funds to see her daughter Amber shine above all others.
But Tracy succeeds in breaking down the barriers, along with some other enlightened characters like her pal Penny Pingleton (Annalise Liard-Bailey, another recent performing graduate); Seaweed, an incredibly athletic Layton Williams who arrives doing backflips and cartwheels; and his blousy mum Motormouth Maybelle, played by X Factor’s Brenda Edwards. What a voice!
The gatecrashing integration of blacks and whites results in everyone being arrested and thrown in jail, so the opening of the second half sees most of the female cast dressed in prison garb singing ‘The Big Doll House’, a catchy ensemble number embellished with hilarious support from prison warder Tracey Penn, who also plays Penny’s austere mother and other ‘female authority figures’ to great comedic effect.
Wonderfully inspired casting sees Matt Rixon playing Edna, Tracy’s (much) larger than life mum, opposite Norman Pace (one half of comedy duo Hale & Pace) as ‘her’ shorter but no less rotund husband Wilbur. Their duet in the second act is wonderful, a rather Morecambe & Wise scene complete with carefully rehearsed ad libs and precision comedy timing. They have the audience in stitches and rightly so, it is a masterpiece of theatrical comedy. In fact there are enough great performances to go round every cast member. There are no weak links at all.
A simple set, lit beautifully, a 7-piece band in view at the back of the stage on occasions, upbeat songs, some amazing voices (explosive singing trio Dynamites live up to their name), athletic dancing and a very colourful wardrobe department combine to make this a must-see show for all ages. In delivering its message, the show is never morbid or downbeat for a second. As Mark Goucher, Producer, says: “theatre has an obligation to both educate and entertain”. Hairspray certainly does both.
Hairspray The Musical runs until Saturday so get down there quick to grab those remaining tickets. www.mayflower.org.uk