★★★★

Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre

Production Run: Mon 9 - Sat 14 Oct 2017

Production Reviewed: Mon 9 Oct (Press Night)

Hairspray is one of those shows.

A show that has such innately joyous, irrepressible DNA (mostly thanks to its without-a-weak-link soundtrack by Shaiman and Whittman) that it is almost impossible to imagine not shimmying and shaking your way out of the auditorium feeling utterly buoyant and completely uplifted.

That being said, there have been productions which haven’t quite managed to get maximum volume from their Hairspray ‘do. Take for instance, the most recent UK tour prior to this one; drab, jarringly naturalistic set design, flat lighting and a mixed bag of a cast made for a somewhat deflated experience.

Fast forward a couple of years though, and, despite this latest touring production sharing a fair deal of talent (both on-stage and off) with 2015’s disappointing offering, the Tracy Turnblad updo has been vigorously resurrected, and Hairspray reasserts itself as one of the 21st Century’s most delectable slices of unadulterated, colourful and campy genius.

Telling the story of wilful and idealistic Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Mendoza) in 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray starts off wistful, almost fairytale-esque. ‘Chunky’ school girl Tracy fights for the attentions of local crooner and school heartthrob Link Larkin (an impressive Edward Chitticks), fends off barbs and jibes from arch-nemesis Amber Von Tussle (a fabulously catty Aimee Moore) whilst religiously watching after-school TV dance troupe, ‘The Corny Collins Show’.

Based on the cult 80s John Waters flick of the same name, as Hairspray progresses, so too do the ideas and themes it tackles - most notably in how Tracy’s crusade to appear on TV and win the affections of her beau end up paling in comparison to the larger fight for racial equality and overturning segregation that come to the fore. 

Pivotally, though, for the clout and insight Hairspray routinely throws at its subject matter, and the unprecedented soul and poignancy it brings along with it, it is first and foremost a hugely entertaining, very funny and completely winning musical theatre experience.

As mentioned, this is in no small way owing to its already-iconic line up of stellar Shaiman numbers. ‘Welcome to the 60s’, ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ and toe-tapping opener ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ are just some of the instantly recognisable highlights, though those who are only familiar with the 2007 film adaptation will find a handful of new characterful treats including ‘The Big Doll House’, ‘Mama I’m A Big Girl Now’ and ‘Cooties’.

It’s an enviable line-up, with a consistency and hum along infectiousness that few other shows can match, and thankfully this latest touring production more than does its soundtrack justice. The cast and ensemble are solid throughout, whilst Dick Straker’s video accompaniments, mostly confined to mood-setting backdrops, along with Philip Gladwell’s suitably bubblegum lighting, all help to energise and saturate proceedings throughout, though it is a shame that occasionally sparse set design renders some numbers such as ‘Nicest Kids in Town’ and the ending of ‘Without Love’ as looking a little lost at sea on a larger stage. 

Of the cast, Mendoza makes an impressive debut in her first professional outing, and surprisingly (not to mention bravely) imbibes her Tracy with a deadpan, understated uniqueness that confidently sets her interpretation of the role aside from the more atypical Blonsky/Winkour template she could have quite easily and understandably fallen back on. Similarly, Annalise Liard-Bailey hilariously ratchets her Penny’s quirkiness up to eleven, moulding her into an almost Charles M. Schulz figure of adorable oddness.

Elsewhere, Matt Rixon channels his inner Michael Ball as Tracy’s mother Edna, continuing the tradition of having the role played by a male actor after the legendary Divine first created the character in the Waters original. Rixon is great fun in the role, and bounces off (quite literally) off of an equally fun and spirited Norman Pace as Wilbur. Brenda Edwards returns to the role of fiesty, spirited DJ Motormouth Maybelle, offering searing, powerhouse vocals for ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ in particular, whilst Layton Williams and Monifa James are equally fantastic as her two children, Seaweed and Little Inez. Gina Murray spins, twists and gets thrown around the stage as a deliciously vampy Velma Von Tussle, Amber’s mother and the bigoted producer of Collins’ show, whilst Tracey Penn pops up and steals scenes aplenty in a variety of hilarious, overbearing and disturbing female authority roles.

Whilst it isn’t a perfect trip to Baltimore - it’s still difficult to not yearn for the even more heightened set and costume design of the original London production and subsequent tours, and as mentioned in places even some of the major set pieces can look a little threadbare - this latest production of Hairspray gets far more right than it wobbles on. With an impressive, spirited cast giving it their all, and the innate joy and sugary goodness of the core show on full display, you’d have to be a very cynical person indeed to not come out of this latest Hairspray makeover with anything other than the biggest of smiles, fullest of hearts and most tapping of toes.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 0844 338 5000​  / Official Website: click​

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