16th October, 2017
My love for Hairspray knows no bounds. I love it in all its incarnations – anyone who has not seen the original John Waters’ film should do so immediately, if only for the iconic sight of Debbie Harry concealing a make-shift bomb in her beehive! So as I’m kind of biased towards the musical to begin with, it would be pretty hard for me not to enjoy it. Yet the touring version of Paul Kerryson’s 2014 Curve production is a hit and miss affair; Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman’s score shines and there are some lovely performances, but the production values are somewhat lacking.
If Curve’s most recent touring musical, Sunset Boulevard, can be described as lavish and sumptuous, a production which wouldn’t look out of place in the West End, their current tour of Hairspray looks tired by comparison. Whether a victim of budget cuts, I don’t know, but after the original run boasted a colourful design and nicely populated stage, the years seem to have taken their toll and it has been scaled down so much that it seems a mere shell of the production it once was. Ill-fitting costumes and wigs, a sparse set which, rather than being stylishly minimalist, looks unfinished (a fold out partition denoting both Penny’s house and Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop is painted a blinding shade of orange with no other identifiable features – a minimal effort which smacks of laziness), and projections which, following the stunning use of video mapping in Sunset Boulevard, are basic and, while attempting to fill the crevasse left by the lack of set, seem soulless and devoid of atmosphere. Overall, the show has a hand-me-down air, cobbled together from previous tours.
On occasion the book scenes feel a bit rushed, as if the actors are racing to get to the next crowd-pleasing musical number, and because of this, some of the jokes come across as either so flippant and casual that they barely register, or laboured to the point of tedium. I’ve seen the fake corpsing during ‘You’re Timeless To Me’ done much better, although, I admit that when you know what’s coming the moment inevitably loses some of its charm. On a more positive note, newcomer, Rebecca Mendoza, got the tone just right as Tracy; endearingly confident and with comic timing perfected to a tee.
If I have seemed overly harsh so far, it is only because I feel this musical deserves better. I adore Waters’ celebration of strong, uncompromising women; I love that Tracy and Motormouth Maybelle are proud of who they are and how they look and never let others tell them otherwise; I love that Tracy gets the guy while maintaining her morals, realising that there are bigger things worth fighting for and having greater personal ambitions; and I love the depiction of a solid, caring marriage in which Edna and Wilbur acknowledge their own and their spouse’s faults while retaining the utmost respect and devotion for one another. The plot is the definition of feel-good, and yes, it does oversimplify the issues surrounding race relations (I won’t go into the problematic ‘white saviour’ trope), but that can be forgiven when the message it promotes is so positive and relevant while also acknowledging its status as a prime piece of fluff.
Shaiman and Whittman have created the catchiest, most sing-along-able musical score of the 21st Century. Every song is a belter and ready-made classic, so with music like this it’s impossible not to be swept away by the sheer joy of it, and Hairspray is now a bona fide, guaranteed hit with the crowds. This tour is no exception. The score shines, and the musical numbers offer high point after high point. If I had to choose stand outs I’d nominate Mendoza’s hilarious ‘I Can Hear The Bells’, Layton Williams’ effortlessly cool ‘Run And Tell That’ and the heartfelt showstopper ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, powerfully performed by Brenda Edwards. Also commendable, Drew McOnie’s choreography remains impressive and proffers a high-octane boost of vitality.
On balance, I would see this production of Hairspray again, namely for the fine performances by Mendoza, Edwards and Williams, McOnie’s class choreography, and because I could listen to those songs forever, but this production doesn’t show off the musical to its best. The set requires a much-needed facelift and the book scenes could do with tightening, but for those seeking a night of bedazzled escapism, Hairspray is just the high-camp tonic you’re after.
Hairspray plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st October. For further tour venues please visit http://www.hairsprayuktour.com/tour-dates/
|Cast of Hairspray. Photo credit: Darren Bell|