cast of hairspry

Freya Sutton as Tracy with Monique Young as Penny and Ashley Gilmour as Link leading the cast in the rousing finale. Pictures Ellie Kurttz

Hairspray

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

IF you are looking for an alternative to panto this Christmas then look no further than this rip-roaring, feel-good, leave with a smile on your face, fun musical.

This new production has breathed fresh, new life into a show that has been doing the rounds since 2002 and with a new look from designer Paul Moore, new choreography by rising star Drew McOnie and infectious enthusiasm from a largely young cast, it is sure to add new members to its cult following.

It is a show with heart, set in 1962  a year before Martin Ledna and wilburuther King Jnr had a dream, and a time when segregation, white or wrong, was a way of life in many parts of the USA. And into that world bounced big, bubbly, Tracy Turnblad who risked her chance of fame with her sense of justice as an unlikely civil rights champion.

Tracy becomes the unlikely new dancer on The Corny Collins Show on TV in Baltimore where there are no black dancers to be seen, except on the monthly Negro Day when only black teens and presenter are to be seen – all based on actual events in Baltimore in the 1960s.

Tony Maudsley and Peter Duncan as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad

The musical, from 2002, is based on the 1988 film from John Waters, who regularly worked with drag artist Divine, from Baltimore incidentally, and cast him as Edna Turnblad, the belligerent mother of hero Tracy.

It is a casting twist that has become a tradition and taking on the role this time is Tony Maudsley best known perhaps, as hairdresser Kenneth in Benidorm, returning to the stage for the first time in 12 years and his first musical for 18. The term duck to water springs to mind.

He eschews the temptation to turn Edna into a panto dame, or even a bloke in a frock, and, although at 6ft 4in and 20 stone - plus a fat suit, and with a deep, gravelly voice, expecting femininity is perhaps a step too far, Maudsely along with Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur create a touching couple, a pair you start to care about as people. The laughs are already in the script so they don’t play it for more and their relationship has a warm, tender quality to add to the fun, which is a refreshing change.

Their duet, You’re timeless to me, is a delightful interlude and a highlight of the show. Duncan’s Wilbur comes over as loving, thoughtful and great fun and there is a genuine stage chemistry created between the pair. They portray a married couple, an odd one admittedly, rather than a double act.

Freya Sutton, played Tracy in the previous UK tour, so it is no wonder she returmotormouthns to the role with bags of confidence, lighting up the stage when she appears as the champion of integration and a beacon for the more . . . well-upholstered ladies in the audience.

And if you have segregation you also need racists and they don’t come much more white supremacist than producer of The Corny Collins Show, Velma Von Tussle played with delightful bigotry by Claire Sweeney. We all know we should hate vitriolic Velma but it is hard when Sweeney is playing the character tongue in cheek, making Velma a figure of derisive fun, someone to laugh at rather than boo.

Like mother like daughter though, and so we have Amber Von Tussle the most self-centred, unlikable wannabe you are ever likely to encounter played with delicious nastiness by Lauren Stroud, Amber is a nice contrast to Tracy’s best friend Penny who is . . . well if you gave her a penny for her thoughts you would want change.

A lady with soul, Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle

Gawky, with glasses and less social skills than a banana, you just know the glasses will go, the hair will tumble down and she will be a stunner before the end and Monique Young does not let us down.

She falls for Seaweed, played by Dex Lee, son of Motormouth Maybelle, host of Negro Day programmes, who shows some smooth dance moves and a curtain call move best not tried at home unless you like hospital food.

Seaweed’s sister Little Inez, played by Karis Jack, adds a fun element and deserves a mention for having such a big voice in such a small girl.

There is also good support from Jon Tsouras as Corny Collins and Ashley Gimour as Link Larkin, the teen hunk love interest of both Tracy and Amber and an excellent, all-singing, all-dancing full of energy, bright as a button ensemble with their infectious enthusiasm.

The show is stolen though by Brenda Edwards as Motormouth. She has come a long way since being the last woman standing in X-Factor 2005, becoming a seasoned musical theatre performer and it is easy to see why as she delivers the civil rights anthem I know where I’ve been. It is a real show stopper, a spine tingling moment and the only serious song in the show.

Edwards’ was brought up in the Gospel church and it shows. If ever a voice was created for soul this is it. It is rare, almost unheard of for a standing ovation at the end of a song in a musical, but Motormouth got one.

A seven-piece band – with three brass – provides a full, 60’s sound bigger than their size suggest with the final number, You can’t stop the beat, encored to a standing ovation, summing up a Christmas treat at the Alex. Directed by Paul Kerryson, the beat goes on to 2 January 2016.

Roger Clarke

14-12-15

Brenda Edwards will be singing at the CBSO Festive Favourites concert, hosted by Alan Tichmarsh, at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Sunday, 20 December where her magnificent voice and Symphony Hall’s stunning acoustics will be a match made in heaven. 

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