Theatre Review: Hairspray @ Bristol Hippodrome
by Polly Hember
Hairspray is a brilliant example of how feel-good musicals can educate as well as entertain. The poster for Hairspray The Musical, with its baby blue and power pink bubbles and an illustration of Tracey’s notoriously big hairdo, looks almost alienatingly frivolous and sugary sweet – but the story of Hairspray has far more bite to it than this suggests. It breaks down prejudices of all kinds, following overweight Tracey’s story as she attempts to follow her dream of TV stardom and set against the backdrop of racially segregated 1962 Baltimore. This musical is unafraid to grapple with difficult issues surrounding inclusion within America’s past that still sadly exist in today’s society, and also presents a fantastic, feel-good singing and dancing show bursting with warmth and hilarity.
From the opening ‘Good Morning Baltimore’, Rebecca Mendoza presents a brilliant and feisty Tracey. She is immediately likable, and her entire performance is charged with beaming energy. Obsessed with getting to dance on the The Corny Collins Show, styling her hair as high as it will go despite this landing her in detention and determined to be one of the ‘Coolest Kids in Town’, her strong sense of self shines through, never faltering despite an arrest and relentless body-shaming from the vampish Velma von Tussle (Gina Murray) and her stroppy daughter Amber (Aimee Moore). She is a source of constant enjoyment and warmth; from taking her nervous mother out on the town to ‘Welcome [her] to the Sixties!’, to calling out institutional racism and defending her friends.
With integration, acceptance and understanding at the warm centre of Hairspray, you might assume Tracey and the show would air on the side of as pious or preachy – but the brilliant humour, catchy songs, relatable characters as well as wickedly yet hilarious baddies, tongue-in-cheek jokes and breath-taking choreography all keep it lively and light, allowing it to tackle big issues within the heart-warming tale.
Humour comes in great big lashings with Matt Rixon’s Edna. Originally played by drag queen Divine in John Water’s film in 1988, then later a wonderfully camp John Travolta in Adam Shankbank’s 2007 version, Rixon presents a hilarious and tongue-in-cheek Edna. Plenty of humour comes from when Rixon drops his voice down to deep and burly, and also in the fantastic exchange between him and Norman Pace, playing the optimistic and cheeky Wilbur. Their duet ‘You’re Timeless To Me’ was one of the highlights of the show; their enjoyment is palpable as they struggle to keep their own giggles under control, whilst still conveying the heart-warming affection of their marriage.
X Factor finalist Brenda Edwards is effortlessly cool on stage, and showcases phenomenal vocals as Motormouth Maybelle. Astonishing choreography from Drew McOnie, executed with astonishing vivacity and energy by the entire ensemble, but in particular the immensely talented Layton Williams who plays Seaweed with a charming charisma and too many backflips to count. The impressive lifts in Murray’s solo ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’ were carried out perfectly, delivering faultless vocals whilst being lifted high and thrown up in the air.
Murray’s vile and spiteful Velma is played with a big, brash pantomime villain flourish, which is hugely entertaining to watch her racist views get overturned as The Corny Collins Show sees white and black teens dance together at the brilliant and beautiful finale. Corny himself is a suave and soft agent for change, played with just the right about of sarcasm and wit by Jon Tsouras.
With a live band playing behind the stage, showcased and playacting TV musicians during The Corny Collins Show scenes, the sound was as big and bold as the hairstyles. Slightly crackly at some points during the first act, which sadly was most notable during Edward Chitticks’ (Link) ‘It Takes Two’, all sound issues were resolved in the second half, saving the best songs till last: ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ had everyone in the audience up out of their seats and dancing.
A fantastic, feel-good musical with proper, big-belly laughs and propelled forward with brilliant dancing and catchy songs with a critically relevant, strong backbone of social commentary and acceptance; this is the perfect musical night out.
Hairspray The Musical is at the Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 10 March 2018 before carrying on with the UK tour. Book tickets here.