The star-studded 2007 film version of Hairspray is one of my favourite musical films of all time. It’s fun and feel-good while highlighting historical issues that are still relatable and stirring, plus it made use of a varied and talented cast. Since then I have long wanted to watch the stage show, which after debuting in 2002 is now one of the top 20 highest grossing musicals on Broadway.
I was due to watch it in the latest West End revival but after delays and postponements it was not to be – until a UK tour soon commenced after its London run. I had high hopes for the musical, which I saw in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, but I must unfortunately admit that I was left quite disappointed. Although it was by no means bad, it wasn’t great nor anywhere near as brilliant as the film.
First of all, about a third of the cast that are billed on the tour’s website were not present. Of the 29 cast members, there were just 19 on stage, and only 5 of them were Black. There should have been 11 Black actors and many more overall in “swing”. Why this was the case is unclear but what was clear was that some actors had to fulfil 2-3 different roles. The lack of Black actors on stage meant the true racial disparity that the show’s story is meant to be about was reflected in this but it also meant scenes that should have been pivotal to the story such as the protest was robbed of its significance – the support and numbers that needed to be present.
Secondly, as expected, some scenes and songs were slightly different to the film, but the absence of songs such as Ladies’ Choice performed by Link (written exclusively for the film) and The New Girl in Town felt weird as they are two iconic songs part of a brilliant list of musical numbers. The former is a young Elvis-style funk-rock track that gets hips moving and feet tapping while the latter should introduce Motormouth Maybelle earlier than the show does (she doesn’t come in until towards the end of Act One). Other songs such as the swooning love song I Can Hear the Bells and the Black rights ballad I Know Where I’ve Been are in different parts of the show. The movement of I Know Where I’ve Been which is performed towards the end of the musical but is sung earlier during the street march in the film once again strips the sombre emotion and reason behind the march. In addition, the song The Big Dollhouse which was not included in the film was fine, if not redundant compared to Cell Block Tango from Chicago.
Many of the cast were superb, particularly well-established musical actress and singer Brenda Edwards as Maybelle, which is the third time she has played the role now. Alex Bourne as Edna Turnblad and John Thomson as Wilbur had hilarious chemistry on stage together, especially on their duet (You’re) Timeless to Me. Stage actor Bourne takes on the legendary role which is often fulfilled by a well-known actor (Michael Ball portrayed her in the recent West End revival) and Thomson is covering Norman Pace for the Blackpool run. It’s a shame I missed the likes of Paul Merton (who was meant to take on the role in London before scheduling conflicts with the delayed starts forced him to drop out) and Les Dennis who took his place playing Wilbur.
Katie Brace makes her professional theatre debut as the show’s main protagonist Tracy Turnblad and did so with great charm and goofy humour throughout. Ross Clifton as Link shone under the spotlight with show-stopping vocals and the character is perhaps the only one that shows real growth. Unfortunately I was not won over by Amber von Tussle and her mother Velma or Penny Pingleton and her mother. Amber, Velma and Mrs Pingleton are humanised from their antagonist stances at the end and Penny’s shrill, nasal voice was grating after too long. The actor playing Seaweed was certainly a good dancer, but he was unintelligible half the time when singing and talking. One of my favourite songs from the musical, the soulful Black empowerment anthem Run and Tell That should have been another banger that Seawood belts and riffs the hell out of but was like a party popper that didn’t go off properly.
The cast, choreography, acting and of course the inclusion of nearly all the songs – bar what I’ve already critiqued – were almost all spot on and faultless. And while there was more comedy in the stage production than the film and the fun and upbeat positivity of it is present, its poignancy fell short. Thankfully the show’s finale and most famous song You Can’t Stop the Beat didn’t disappoint and at least ended a somewhat underwhelming production on a high.
The overtones retelling the racial issues present in the 60s that the film had were reduced to undertones on stage. I felt more precedent was given to the rivalry between Tracy and Amber that stemmed from Tracy’s new relationship with Link and Amber’s disdain over Tracy becoming more popular and bullying her. While the show had themes of racial prejudice, bullying and acceptance they seemed to be nothing more than a running subplot to its main story rather than integrated with it like Tracy wanted The Corny Collins Show to be. During a time when we need some good laughs and joyful fun to enjoy watching it definitely delivers, but during a time when these stories of civil rights and unrest need to be brought to attention, a show like Hairspray could do more to make them more prominent.