It’s official, the West End is back! A global pandemic may have delayed, but it certainly couldn’t stop, the beat, as the ultimate feel-good musical; Hairspray, finally arrives at London Coliseum, a year later than it was first scheduled to run. The iconic show based in 1960’s Baltimore, with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, proves itself once again as the tonic we all so desperately need.
Continued social distancing requirements mean that for now, the Coliseum’s capacity is limited to an audience of a thousand, less than half of what the gargantuan venue can usually hold. But Hairspray The Musical manages to whip its audience in to such a frenzy, it feels like the auditorium is bursting at the seams with theatregoers determined to enjoy themselves.
Sixteen-year-old Tracy Turnblad has an all-consuming desire to dance on The Corny Collins Show, and even dares to dream of taking the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962. Tracy is an underdog, the kind of girl that doesn’t necessarily fit in to a TV executives mold, if it were not her size, it would be her socio-economic background, or youthful naivety, that held her back. But this musical about hopes and dreams, does see Tracy land a spot on the dance show, and with it she brings the fight to end racial segregation, all while landing the boy of her dreams.
With so many musicals currently being adapted for the big screen, it’s easy to forget that Hairspray came to us first via the cinema in the late eighties. It was that loveable, tacky movie that was then turned in to a Broadway musical. Perhaps the main reason it has become such an enduring success is down to director Jack O’Brien (who also directs here). O’Briens talent for weaving serious themes in to a comedy is evident, those issues of prejudice are given the prominence they deserve, neither detracting from, or being diluted by, the upbeat nature of the show.
Had Hairspray opened as planned, it would have been running as the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets in protest. Despite ostensibly being a comedy musical, Hairspray depicts its own form of protest, and the aspects of segregation and prejudice cut even deeper following events in the US and across the world. Marisha Wallace, in the role of Motormouth, received a standing ovation mid-show for the iconic ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, and its no wonder, not only is the song a vital piece of commentary, Wallace’s performance was outstanding.
It is overall a very strong cast that leads Hairspray The Musical back to the West End. Michael Ball reprises his Olivier Award winning role of Edna Turnblad, turning on a gruff voice at pertinent moments, much to the delight of the swooning audience. Les Dennis makes a welcome addition to the cast as Wilbur, and while the role is under written in the first half, Dennis injects it with more than healthy dose of down to earth comedy.
We’ve been waiting a very long time to see Lizzie Bea make her debut as a lead in the West End, and it’s been worth every second. Bea plays the part of Tracy Turnblad to pure perfection, aside from stunning vocals, Bea’s energy lights up the stage, and the demanding role seems to pose no problems for this talented performer.
Jonny Amies (also making his West End debut) is the suave and cocky Link, while the pairing of Mari McGinlay (Penny) and Ashley Samuels (Seaweed) works extremely well.
Hairspray is responsible for a string of recognisable music numbers, and it’s Jerry Mitchell’s breathtakingly spirited and dynamic choreography that is the icing on the cake, you can feel the audience around you just itching to get to their feet and join in with the fast paced, knock-your-socks-off routines.
In the toughest of circumstances, Hairspray The Musical has remained steadfastly firm. Other productions have opened before it, but few of them have felt so big, bold, and beautiful. It’s impossible not to be enamoured by the catchy tunes, bright colours, and dazzling stage presence of the cast. In these troubling times, if Hairspray can’t cure what ails us, then nothing can.