Before the curtain even goes up on Hairspray, you know that you’re in for a good time. The colourful lights, the upbeat music, the buzz of audience chatter. And when Good Morning Baltimore kicks in and the curtain flings up, the party well and truly begins. For this opening number, the stage is full of colourful costumes and smiling faces. The choreography is jovial and precise. The singing, especially from lead actor Rebecca Mendoza, is perfectly tuned and positively rousing. What’s not to like?
It is so easy to fall for Mendoza’s character, Tracy Turnblad. The big girl with big dreams has such a delightful and infectious personality that one can’t fail to be on her side from the first few minutes. Before we know it, we are rooting for her to come through an audition that will see her become a local star on national TV. Despite the oppressive views of condescending producer Velma Von Tussle (a venomous Gina Murray), she manages to make it onto ‘The Corny Collins Show’. She becomes an instant hit. Yet she isn’t content with a regular slot on this primetime light entertainment show. This is the 1960s, and segregation remains rife. Tracy wants to use her new-found power to unite both races by having them dance on the same show. The reality of making such a vision come true however, is a lot harder than first thought.
It is perhaps surprising to find such a profound theme being dealt with in such a feel-good show. The music has you smiling throughout and yet, at the same time, the narrative focus remains on a sensitive and troubling issue. To walk this line between seriousness and fun is a tricky one. I did notice one or two pieces of dialogue that seemed rather inappropriate and uncomfortable. But as they were coated with the sugary sweetness of the soundtrack, such moments became superfluous within the bigger musical context. Perhaps this is being nit-picky however. It was great to see such a diverse cast onstage and certainly the standout performance aside from Mendoza had to be Rebecca Edwards. Her leading vocals on I Know Where I’ve Been were especially powerful (show-stopping, in fact) and certainly connected the pain of racism with the hope of its elimination like nowhere else in this musical.
On the other end of the spectrum, Timeless Like Me provided the most hilarious sequence of the night. Matt Rixon and Norman Pace struggled to keep it together in what turned into a rather panto-style few minutes. You were never quite sure how much they were ad-libbing and to what extent it remained scripted, such was the accuracy of the music to their sung lyrics. At least part of their act must surely have been off-the-cuff though. Pace in particular tried unsuccessfully to keep his composure, failing to hold back the hysterics that soon took over Rixon too. Such an unexpected performance ended up being a tear-inducing highlight. No wonder they got a rapturous round of applause on finishing the number.
In between, there is a host of fabulous songs for both your listening and viewing pleasure. Welcome to the ‘60s encapsulates the fun of musicals. I’m a Big Girl Now has some wonderfully precise choreography and lighting that really enhance the lyrical content. And one cannot go without mentioning the smash-hit Can’t Stop the Beat, the moves to which most of the audience had an intimate knowledge of, making for a wholly satisfying finale.
As such, if you have only ever listened to the soundtrack, I would urge you to get a ticket and go and see Hairspray in the flesh. If you thought that bopping along to the CD in your living room was enough of a good time, think again. The stage show is electrifyingly fun and an absolute joy to watch, worth every penny of whatever you spend to get yourself there. Hairspray is guaranteed to make you smile.
Originally written as part of Young Critics North Wales in April 2018.