It’s been more than 40 years since Hairspray the musical first caused a storm and this feelgood show, with its controversial backstory, isn’t about to pack away its political credentials just yet.
The multi award-winning musical is back out on tour and opened last night, in front of a packed audience, at Milton Keynes Theatre. It was great to see the crowds back.
Hairspray is a real oddity. It’s scored (by Marc Shairman and Scott Whittman) with cheesy, upbeat and toe-tapping tunes that will attract youngsters.
But the plot is as dark as they come, dealing not only with racism and bigotry, but also fat-shaming.
Themes that are, sadly, just as relevant today as 1962 when the original story is set.
Hairspray was the creation of cult, maverick director John Walters who based his 1988 film on a real life controversy surrounding a popular TV show which refused to allow integrated black and white dancers.
The hugely popular Buddy Deane Show – which ran from 1957 to 1964 – was televised from Waters’ home city of Baltimore, aired six days a week and was watched by millions of teens who wanted to see the latest dance crazes.
Waters’ film may have passed the UK by but the story was picked up and turned into a Broadway musical which, in turn, spawned a movie remake (with John Travolta), and a West End and touring success. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hairspray tells the story of Baltimore schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad who is desperate to win a spot as a teen dancer on the Corny Collins Show.
Her father, Wilbur, runs a joke shop while her well-padded mum, Edna, hides away at home, taking in ironing, embarrassed and ashamed of her size.
Both had dreams and ambitions which came to nothing so they are reluctant to back their daughter’s uphill battle for TV stardom.
What marks the defiant Hairspray out is that its leading lady, the diminutive Tracy, is rather rotund and is forever being ridiculed by others because of her excess pounds.
And secondly, an homage perhaps to the original movie which starred cult drag queen Divine as Edna, the role has always been cast, on stage and screen, for a man.
The production now touring sees a large company of seasoned West End performers who deliver a slick, high energy and vibrant show.
The dancing, brilliantly choreographed by Drew McOnie, is flawless and most of the tunes are grounded in the style of the time. They’re zingy, and performed with gusto by the luminously clad cast.
Yet there are two numbers that manage to stop the show – and soak up the applause – with their complete change of pace.
X Factor success Brenda Edwards (so fabulous in the Queen musical, We Will Rock You) earns her keep with a gutsy, inspirational and emotional rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been.
It’s a rousing anthem which really suits Edwards’ powerful voice. It’s a shame we don’t see more of her in the production.
As someone called Motormouth Maybelle you’d think she’d be hogging the dialogue but she’s contained to just a few scenes.
However, for me, the highlight of the show is the romantic You’re Timeless To Me, a lovely, affectionate and moving duet performed by Alex Bourne’s Edna and stand-in Paul Hutton as her husband Wilbur.
Norman Pace, once one half of UK comedy pair, Hale and Pace, was a no-show in MK on opening night, so Hutton, with a career largely in the ensemble or panto, found himself centre stage.
And what a find (if it’s possible to say that about a man who has been treading the boards for nearly 30 years). He slipped into the role of Wilbur with consummate ease and looked very comfortable as a leading man.
Hairspray is a terrific show, great entertainment, thought-provoking and (still) controversial. Welcome to the ‘60s.