Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Directed by Paul Kerryson
The flasher down the street, rats around your feet and the friendly bum on his barstool – you’d be forgiven for mistaking the bright and shimmering era of the sixties in Baltimore for the streets of Auld Reekie Toun. Hairspray makes a return to Edinburgh, with bigger hair, bolder ballads and as welcoming an audience as ever for their opening night.
For a few hours, attempt to distance yourself from reality and be welcomed into the heaving bosom of Baltimore, 1962 – where teen Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show. A big dream, for a big girl, with even bigger hair refuses to allow social anxieties and prejudices to bring this bopper down after securing a spot on the show as one of the Nicest Kids in Town. But with fame comes responsibility, and Tracy is a rare sort – who, unlike antagonistic bully Amber, uses this celebrity to tackle racial segregation and fight for equality. And if she can do all that in a heavy hairpiece while dancing and skipping detentions – there’s no reason a man in a suit can’t do the same.
Good morning, Baltimore indeed! The utterly vivacious and triumph Katie Bruce breaths such vitality into Tracy Turnblad – radiating charm and effortless stage presence, with a balanced poise for both uplifting comedic timing and a more downtrodden, sullen melancholy where required. But it’s difficult to stay down, especially when matched with best friends Penny Pingleton, cast perfectly by Rebecca Jayne-Davies, lifting the less central (though important) role into one of the show’s standout features of vocals, humour, and a rather impressive physicality to match that of Reece Richards tight choreographed Seaweed.
Race is, and will always be, the pivotal and centralised core of Hairspray. Though it takes forays into American class systems, communist propaganda and of course a healthy dose of body positivity, the profiling of black characters and segregation sits at the foundations of John Walters 1988 classic starring Divine and Ruth Brown, coming to a more visible and less subtle crux with Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan and March Shaiman’s 2002 musical adaptation.
A predominantly white audience, and this writer for that matter, will never fully comprehend the annexation, cruelty, and resistance characters like Motormouth Maybelle denote for communities still maintaining a fight for their rights and visibility long after the rest of us would have given in. But for one moment: I Know Where I’ve Been instils in the guts of audiences a sliver of that emotional integrity. Bernadette Bangura is a titan on stage. Filling in for Brenda Edwards, who is taking a break from the show following the loss of her son Jamal, Bangura retains the integrity of the role while bringing a presence of movement and control.
From one legend to another – or rather two, Alex Bourne and Norman Pace as Tracy’s parents Enda and Wilbur are a dangerous pairing. Particularly Pace. Mirthful, effortlessly funny and a pleasure to watch, when left alone for their touching rendition of You’re Timeless to Me – there’s a producer somewhere tearing what’s left of their hair out. Adlibbing, pushing the physicality of their performances and just having one hell of a good time, Bourne and Pace are the absolute heart of the show. Without question, a highlight and precisely the energy audiences require right now.
And though Marc Shaiman’s exceptionally infectious score compliments Scott Wittman’s additional lyrics, director Paul Kerryson has a tough job ensuring the pacing follows. Largely exceptional, especially in the Act Two opening and closing of Big Doll House and You Can’t Stop the Beat, there’s an uphill struggle for Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin who just takes a little too much time to generate the required energy and charm of the heartthrob. Aiding somewhat is his chemistry with our antagonists Rebecca Thornhill and Jessica Croll as the Velma and Amber Von Tussle – who may have fewer solos but always make their presence known.
Hairspray has always been a significant crowd-pleaser, starting all those years ago in the same way it intends to go on: full of vibrance, optimism, determination, and a full-bodied beat that pushes you to get up and jive. And mercifully, it still resonates with audiences with more than its infectious soundtrack and lyrics – the intention is there, the tears roll as Motormouth Maybelle dares the audience not to stand by her, and the sea of faces happy to watch a leading performer who has a shape similar to them is a warming moment come the production’s well-deserved standing ovation.
Hairspray runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until March 19th. Tickets for which can be obtained here.