John Walters 1988 cult classic Hairspray follows the queen-sized Tracy Turnblad and her bubble gum toting bestie as they seek out a spot on the Corny Collins Show. The 1960s brings a colourful cast of characters and with an open spot, the cool kids are looking for a dancer that is ahead of the trends. Fortunately for Corny, Tracy is looking to audition. Having borrowed a few moves from her black friends in Special Ed class, she hopes to integrate her new-found ethnic flavour into the shows all-white aesthetic. It seems the only thing slowing her progress is the show’s producer, Velma Von Tussle who is fighting for her all-American daughter, Amber to take centre stage. As she moves towards her dream to dance with her new friends on the show, Tracy finds her body positive, progressive attitude may set her back.
After Walters’ film was transformed into a Tony and Emmy award-winning stage musical in 2002 it was later remade into a musical film starring John Travolta, Queen Latifah and Zack Efron. While the original films gritty underdog has been cleaned up for a glittery musical remake, there are only a few alterations that separate the live performance from its musical film adaptation.
The most notable difference is the casting. Here, the blonde baddies played by Gina Murray (Velma) and Aimee Moore (Amber) are entertaining with strong vocals and brilliant comedic timing. Murray delivers a solo of (The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs that allows her to show her true talent. Murray being lifted, thrown and twirled around the stage by male dancers while hitting the high notes is one of the best performances of the production. The show boasts a jukebox of memorable tunes, offering back to back hits performed by powerful singers and accompanied by an eight-piece live band.
The fabulous soundtrack was brought to life with a deconstructive set that broke away at the corners to reveal the teen's apartments and lifted its backing to reveal the Corny show. The band often remain housed away as there was plenty of action on stage, including choreography that allowed Layton Williams (Seaweed) to flip across the stage like a member of Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately, many of the musical numbers were overpowered by the band. Despite often being hidden away at the back of the stage, the intense playing made the lyrics impossible to decipher and with eyes as big as saucers, I questioned if I had actually heard the words “I used to be nappy headed”.
The production became frustrating to watch because many of the elements worked. The B-movie tone is a great departure from a typical theatre production. Puppet rats’ scatter across Tracy’s feet, bedazzled second-hand costumes are handed out to the cast and unforeseen technical problems arose with a can of hairspray. This ensemble also has a hyped-up energy, with a fast joke counter keeping a great pace for the comedy.
However, not all the eye-popping moments were positive. Part stand-ins and a lazy ending left this production feeling unresolved and a shadow of its movie equivalent. The film offers a more resolved ending regarding race relation, but this productions fight for equality was not as compelling due to its water coloured cast and direction. Why the phrase “plastic little spastic” has not been edited out of the UK run is beyond me. The understudies casting was also a disappointment as Mr. Turnblad couldn’t stop laughing whilst performing (You're) Timeless to Me. Yet, when the final performance is sung, integration is announced, the audience is rushed to their feet to clap, and no questions are asked.
It is a conflicting show as it has bags of charm and expands on its original material perfectly. Although the fight against shallow imagery was slightly washed away in this production, I sense that the regular cast would have pushed the boundaries further and given a more complete picture.