Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Hairspray – a great piece of toe tapping musical theatre (Grand Opera House until Saturday 7 November)

Hairspray’s premise is that a non-blonde, non-skinny girl steps forward to audition for the local TV dance show and the chance to compete to be Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962. Unsurprisingly, she is rebuffed as she doesn’t look the part. Yet, being a non-conformist at school means that Tracy’s spell in the ‘special ed’ class introduces her to new dance moves from the black students who are only allowed to participate on the TV show one day a month. Tracy gets on the show, only to announce that every day should be integrated, and her later protest leads to trouble and more than one song and dance.

Good Morning Baltimore and You Can’t Stop the Beat might be the best known numbers from hit musical Hairspray, but the current UK tour which passes through Belfast this week hides some other gems in its set list.

Tracy’s Mum and Dad – Alex Bourne (traditionally in drag) and Norman Pace (one half of Hale and Pace) – brought the house down with their wonderfully saucy rendition of Timeless to Me (though maybe the ad libs are now thoroughly scripted and just well delivered?!), while cover Bernadette Bangurai’s I Know Where I've Been was packed with soul and the actor had great presence as Motormouth Maybelle. Another cover on Belfast’s opening night was Zoë Heighton playing Penny opposite the powerful vocals of Katie Brace’s Tracy. Little Inez (Charlotte St Croix) stole more than one scene with her youthful exuberance.

There’s a sense that while the show explores racism in the 1960s, the fight for equality (as well as the enduring issue of sizeism) there’s a touch of the white saviour narrative about the plot which requires white Tracy to take the fight – admittedly aided and abetted by an older black record store owner Motormouth – to the TV show’s door. Tracy’s best friend Penny comes from a straightlaced home. Her hackneyed utterance “now I've tasted chocolate and I'm never going back” drops in 2021 like an unwelcome depth charge while her mother’s conversion to appreciate the black fella she found on her daughter’s bed is unbelievable even in the rarefied suspended belief of musical theatre.

The costumes, choreography and energy keep the story moving over these potholes as the cast and eight-piece band belt out the numbers. The psychedelic jackets and dresses in the finale are amazing. The ensemble of singers and dancers keep the stage alight. An intermittent projected backdrop simplifies the heft of the set. While the visuals are lightly animated, it’s never too distracting. What’s more noticeable is that nearly every strong song in show has a deliberate break for applause and then a brief reprise to ramp up the energy before the next scene. It’s a neat production technique, though somewhat overused.

The emotion of the musical film version and the storytelling of NBC’s Hairspray Live! aren’t quite as well developed in the current UK tour. The news that The Corny Collins Show is now ‘integrated’ does not trigger much of a reaction from the Belfast audience: somehow, we don’t ‘hear the bells’, or maybe being integrated isn’t as popular as surveys suggest! Hairspray is packed with good performances, but the story stops short of being profound: lacking that extra punch to ground its story of racial prejudice in 2021 and to speak into situations that still need to be addressed. Still, it’s a great piece of musical theatre and will remain in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 7 November.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

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