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Theatre review: Hairspray: The Musical/Manchester Opera House

Joan Davies loves the fun, the message and the routines of the show coming to Liverpol next month

Published on July 16th 2010.

Theatre review: Hairspray: The Musical/Manchester Opera House

Hairspray’s beehives are touring the country and have hit Manchester’s Opera House, bringing with them eight wardrobe-sized crates of wigs, and that’s just for the chorus.

All the songs start with the rhythms, instrumentation and structure of 60s pop, but by the end each number has morphed into a show tune, galvanising action and emotion and driving the production with spirit and energy and taking the audience with it.

It’s certainly a great evening’s entertainment: a roller-coaster of simple 60s-inspired tunes and entertaining dancing, the sort we can all aspire to, complemented with sherbet-coloured costumes and sets, topped off with those wigs and their ever-increasing dimensions. What’s more there’s a good moral tale: the baddies get their come-uppance and the world is changed. And it’s not too far removed from reality.

If you’ve not met the Hairspray brand before, here’s a potted history. Set in Baltimore in 1962 the story originally appeared as a 1988 comedy by cult filmmaker John Waters. Its modest success led to its adaptation as a musical. The original film used genuine early 60s music whereas the musical has a score of original songs which current audiences tend to know because a second film, based on the musical, was a big hit on its release in 2007.

Tracy Turnblad, a generously sized teenager with an optimism to match, lives for ‘The Corney Collins Show’ a daily broadcast of music and dancing featuring ‘The Council’ a group of teenagers whose daily dancing on TV has elevated them to the status of trend setters and mini-celebrities. Tracy’s dream is to use her dancing skills to join The Council and to capture the heart of Link Larkin, the lead male dancer.

Her happiness is blocked by two layers of prejudice, the prejudice against her size and the segregation that keeps the show predominantly for white kids with the occasional concession of ‘negro day’. The really cool white kids love the music the black kids dance to and love their dance moves. They want an end to segregation.

Tracy of course is ultra-cool and a threat to segregationist show-producer Velma VonTussle and her Council-leading daughter Amber. Tracy carries out her personal and society’s battles with the help of parents Edna and Wilbur and friends old and new. While the characters are entirely fictional the issues are not; in parts of America in 1962 segregation was common, in education as well as dance.

It’s a strange mix; the edginess of John Water’s original conception, the serious of the race issue and the confectionary that is inevitably dominant in a feel-good musical like this. Yet it works.

On Press Night, Quay Street, was a bit part in a show entitled ‘Storm’ after the clouds burst over the city. No amount of hairspray could have saved a beehive hairdo, and a technical fault delayed the start by almost thirty minutes while the audience began to dry out. Then Tracy sang ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ and the rest of the evening was spent being thoroughly entertained by a hard-working, talented and well-rehearsed team, who earned a standing ovation and left the audience to depart into the damp night, their faces beaming.

Laurie Scarth is endearing as Tracy, displaying the teenage mix of confidence and nerves with boundless energy. Her parents, Edna and Wilbur, are played by Michael Ball and Nigel Planer, though casting varies at other venues. Michael Ball was born to play this role. His voice, timing and dancing, particularly in high heels, give the role a degree of grace that neither Divine nor John Travolta, both of whom played Edna in the film versions, managed to convey. During his popular and touching duet with Nigel Planer, ‘Timeless To Me’, I genuinely forgot he was a man.

Supporting roles are strongly played, though inevitably many are written as stereotypes. I particularly liked the Dynamites, modelled on the Supremes, superbly sung and danced by Shakira Akabusi, Natalie Kelly, and Abiona Omonua. The most powerful singing comes from Sandra Marvin as Motormouth Maybelle giving voice to her frustration and determination in “I Know Where I’ve Been”.

Set design by David Rockwell works to keep the action moving and produces some of the most impressive and seamless set changes I’ve seen.

Watching the stage show rather than the film makes you realise how clever the composition is. All the songs start with the rhythms, instrumentation and structure of 60s pop, but by the end each number has morphed into a show tune, galvanising action and emotion and driving the production with spirit and energy and taking the audience with it.

This is the first UK tour of Hairspray following a two and a half year London run. I expect it will be back very soon.

Hairspray is at The Opera House, Manchester, until Saturday 31st July, then at the Liverpool Empire from Tuesday 17 August - Saturday 4 September.

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i wish i had been there…it sounds like something joyous and anarchic...the way the article is…

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