A new production of Hairspray hit Birmingham Hippodrome last night and the audience absolutely loved it. In his programme notes, producer Mark Goucher writes about theatre’s obligation to both educate and entertain. This production achieves the grade of outstanding in both categories.
The show hits the ground running as heroine Tracy Turnblad welcomes us to Baltimore with style and a huge sense of fun. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is Rebecca Mendoza’s professional debut. She has light and shade in her vocal range and she captures the essence of Tracy perfectly in her movements and expressions. Annalise Liard-Bailey’s Penny Pingleton is on the right side of quirky and cute, though occasionally her over-Americanised accent made it a little difficult to pick out the lyrics. Local heartthrob Link Larkin (Edward Chitticks) is just cool enough yet retains a degree of innocence and croons beautifully.
Velma Von Tussle ((Gina Murray) is the pushy mom par excellence. She may be now only the producer of the after-school TV show but she can still produce some stunning dance moves and her ability to exert her authority is second to none. Aimee Moore gives a first class performance as Amber, Velma’s ambitious, rather catty daughter. Layton Williams’s Seaweed is something of a scene-stealer, he has great stage presence and some very sweet dance moves. His mother, Motormouth Maybelle is one strong performance by Brenda Edwards. Sassy but never brash, Maybelle inspires Tracy to continue her fight against discrimination and her almost anthemic rendition of “I know where I’ve been” is truly moving and one of the highlights of the show.
Matt Rixon as Edna and Norman Pace’s Wilbur almost steal the show in the tender yet slightly pantomime-esque “You’re Timeless to Me”. It’s a tradition that Edna is played by a man and Rixon seems to really revel in his chance to re-imagine the traditional pantomime dame. Edna and Wilbur’s love and understanding shine through whilst giving us some hilarious moments and their comic timing is superb.
The set is simple, making the stage look very big at times but it works through some very effective and sensitive lighting, particularly in the single prison cell scene featuring Tracy and Link. Its simplicity works best in “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” with Tracy, Penny and Amber each in their own space yet all coming together in their quest for independence. Setting the excellent band at the rear of the stage is a good move. The costumes are exactly right, smart colours and cottons for the Corny Collins TV show crew and slinky, glittery, sexy for Maybelle. The film backdrop for the protest scene reminded us that this is not just a frothy musical show, it’s real life and is a slightly sobering moment in this feel-good, fun night out.
The finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat” brings the entire ensemble together and is a fitting showcase for such a hugely talented group of performers. It’s fun, it’s so very ‘60s, it’s just kitsch enough, it’s foot-tapping, it’s get up and dance, it’s heart-warming and it’s a wonderful ending to one of the best shows we’ve seen for a while. Listening to the audience reaction as we left, it’s clear that Hairspray is a huge success and deserves all the plaudits that will undoubtedly come its way.
Hairspray runs until October 14th and tickets can be purchased here
Review by Mary McHenry