Take the music of the 50’s and 60’s, colourful costumes and sets, a dream common to every teenage girl in America (to take part in a televised dance competition), add Michael Ball and Mel Smith – two well-known stars of musical theatre and television – as unusual parents, and pepper the show with two newcomers as lovers. You get a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, which has crossed the Atlantic and since 30th October has been generating ecstatic reactions and standing ovations every night in the West End.
To guarantee the optimal production, the original director Jack O’Brien and his creative team came over to London too. And so 1960’s Baltimore is coming to life again in London every night, with its revolts against racial segregation and its declarations about being large or otherwise “different”. A cast of nearly 30 is now raising the spirits of audiences at the Shaftesbury Theatre night after night.
The story can be briefly summarised: teenager Tracy Turnblad (Leanne Jones) and her friend Penny Pingleton (Elinor Collett) are living in Baltimore in 1962, where watching the Corny Collins dance show on television is the highlight of their week. When auditions for it are announced, the pair see this as their chance to meet the programme’s heartthrob, Link Larkin (Ben James-Ellis). The producer of the show, Velma van Tussle (Tracie Bennett), would like her daughter Amber (Rachel Wooding) to be selected at the auditions. Tracy’s parents Edna (Michael Ball) and Wilbur (Mel Smith) are against their daughter auditioning, but she ignores their advice. What happens comes as no surprise: the rather overweight Tracy is ridiculed, and promptly thrown out by Velma. But not before she has bumped into and fallen in love with Link. After her humiliation, Tracy meets a group of black teenagers including Seaweed J Stubbs (Adrian Hansel), whom she befriends on noticing their gift for dancing. Together they all concoct a plan to force their way onto the show to dance before the cameras.
They cause a revolution, with Edna becoming an agent, and producer Velma and her daughter intriguing as never before to get rid of the ever-popular Tracy. When Link openly sympathises with Tracy, the van Tussles manage to get her and her friends arrested. The finale is exactly what is to be expected of a cheesy Broadway romance: Tracy wins the competition and the boy, the blacks are granted the right to appear on the TV show, and the van Tussles are punished.
The original score is inspired by the rock’n’roll and rockabilly of the late 50’s and 60’s. One cannot help but lap up the tunes, clap along to the beats and dance in the aisles. Eleven musicians, conducted by Nicholas Skilbeck, create a sound that energises the entire theatre, which first opened in 1911. The showstoppers of the evening are Tracy’s opening number “Good Morning Baltimore”, Edna and Wilbur’s “Har De Har Hut” in the second act, and of course “Hairspray” and the finale “You Can’t Stop The Beat”. The wonderful ballad “I Know Where You Have Been”, performed by Motormouth Maybelle (Johnnie Fiori) also lingers in the memory.
Casting an inexperienced youngster for a lead role always carries certain risks. But in the case of Leanne Jones the producers are to be congratulated. Her engaging charisma endears her to the audience in no time at all. And when the young Brit, who is making her professional debut in the production, starts to sing, the sun goes up in every sense of the word. The entire audience simultaneously starts to smile, and thrills to Jones’s fresh, warm and surprisingly powerful voice.
In Ben James-Ellis as teen idol and Elvis-wannabe Link Larkin, Jones has an engaging and dynamic counterpart. However, he is not quite as memorable; not, indeed, are the van Tussles, even though their bitchiness and drive is second-to-none and they are responsible for some of the show’s funniest moments. They contrast markedly with Seaweed’s gang. Adrian Hansel sings and dances his way into the hearts of the young female audience members. His mother Motormouth Maybelle is played by Johnnie Fiori, who stands out by virtue of her huge soul voice. Natalie Best is the “cutie” of the show as younger sister Inez. She possesses a very sweet voice and always manages to weave her way into the centre of the action.
Jones has a strong contender for the audience’s hearts in Michael Ball, who portrays a caring mother with a weakness for showbiz. The famous British musical star can hardly be recognised beneath his fat suit and his initially rather plain dresses, which then become very colourful and elaborate towards the end of the show. But his scenes and relatively few songs are met with rapturous applause. The parents’ romantic duet in the second act, “Har De Har Hut”, is simultaneously moving and amusing: moving because it shows an older couple swearing their eternal love to each other, and amusing because of the two performers’ dance moves. Their two kisses at the end of the scene are warmly applauded by the audience. Michael Ball really throws himself into this motherly role and is a true joy to watch.
“Hairspray” raises the serious topics of discrimination and racial conflict, but without passing judgement on them. In addition, the show stands up for the chubbier among us. Although it does resort to standard clichés, these actually fit perfectly into this colourful world. Anybody who doesn’t come out of the theatre in the best of moods is a lost cause.
Although we do not make a habit of making predictions, we anticipate a long West End run for “Hairspray” for as long as Michael Ball and Leanne Jones are in the cast.
veröffentlicht in blickpunkt musical
Actors: Michael Ball, Ben James-Ellis, Leanne Jones, Johnnie Fiori
Director: Jack O‘Brien
Photos: Catherine Ashmore