I’d already been enjoying myself, but when Michael Ball – dressed up in, ahem, large ladies’ attire and sporting lovely red lipstick – received a smacker on the lips from former Monkee Mickey Dolenz and struggled to keep it together as the audience whooped and cheered, I knew the long journey to see Hairspray had been worthwhile.
The packed-out Hippodrome crowd certainly did let their hair down as Jerry Mitchell and Jack O’Brien’s production managed the difficult trick of lifting spirits and generating laughs out of what was a dark period in US history.
Based on the story of segregation and civil rights in 1960s America, and how one teen music TV show became the centre of attention as black – and large – youth broke down barriers to dance with the slim, white-only boppers, Hairspray manages to turn an uncomfortable and shameful story into one of joy and hope.
The Corny Collins TV show is the dream for Tracy Turnblad, wonderfully played by Laurie Scarth – a typical teen in love with dancing and music… and the star musician on the show Link Larkin (Charles Ruhrmund). In her bid to get on the show, she is turned away by the despicable producer, Velma von Tussle. Gillian Kirkpatrick (Billy Elliot, Blood Brothers) was given an unfair ‘boo’ at the end, as she portrayed the type of in-bred racism and prejudice so prevalent at the time, perfectly.
Demanding her slim, Barbie-doll like daughter Amber (Clare Halse) win the upcoming contest, she turns Tracy away. The ever-positive Tracy walks away and comes across the rhythm and cruise of Seaweed (Wayne Robinson) – a black teen and his Anetha Franklin-style mum. There she learns to ‘really’ dance and, together, they plan to take over the studio and bring an end to segregation on her favourite TV show.
There’s love, laughs, frustration, hilarity and great tunes all in equal measure – with the inevitable happy ending.
Michael Ball is fantastic as Tracy’s mother Edna, and is in danger of overshadowing Micky Dolenz – who plays Tracy’s father. But he is understated and has enough gravitas to pull off what, in hindsight, seemed to me be a slightly lesser role. Perhaps that’s just me – I was a huge fan of the Monkees when I was growing up and wanted to see him most of all!
But the scene at the start of the second act, when Michael and Micky showed the love, was worth the wait for the star names to live up to their names in lights.
One last special mention must go out to Emma Dukes, who plays Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton – a geek in the truest sense of the word. She was wonderful to watch throughout, and when she finally came out of her shell to show off her thang in a sparkly little number at the end, well, geek-tastic!
Well worth taking the family (or not) to see, Hairspray is at the Bristol Hippodrome until April 30.