If you want a show that’s guaranteed to entertain, you need look no further than Hairspray. Flying the flag for anyone who’s ever felt they don’t quite fit in, it’s the story of an American teenager with a heart of gold, who refuses to believe she can’t live her dreams just because she doesn’t look like all the pretty girls on TV. Dancing her way into the nation’s hearts, Tracy Turnblad inadvertently becomes the leader of a civil rights movement, campaigning for racial integration – because the alternative simply doesn’t make sense to her.
In a weird way, it’s almost depressing that we still need shows like Hairspray. It would be great if we could sit back and enjoy the feel-good story, safe in the smug knowledge that these are yesterday’s problems. Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the two big issues addressed by the show – body shaming and racism – are still just as topical today as they were in the 60s (when the story’s set) or the 80s (when it was written).
Perhaps that’s why two of this production’s most memorable moments both come from Motormouth Maybelle – Act 1 finale Big, Blonde and Beautiful, and the electrifying I Know Where I’ve Been. Then again, it could just be because Brenda Edwards, who plays Maybelle, is vocally incredible. Either way, her solos certainly stand out in a musical that’s full of show-stopping moments – among them the sweet comedy duet between Matt Rixon and Norman Pace; it’s a number known for improvisation and innuendos, and this partnership don’t disappoint. And let’s not forget the fabulous finale, which wraps everything up in a neat, glittery bow, and does so with such energy and joy that you can easily put aside how utterly unrealistic it all is.
Newcomer Rebecca Mendoza, making her professional debut as Tracy, proves herself not only a talented singer and dancer but also a gifted comedian; her adoration of Link (a suitably charming Edward Chitticks) is particularly fun to watch. At the other extreme is the villain of the piece, unashamedly racist TV producer Velma, who’s played with great relish by Gina Murray; it’s only a shame we don’t get to hear more of her amazing vocals.
As well as a great cast who are all worthy of mention, Hairspray also boasts a toe-tapping 60s-inspired score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, brilliant choreography from Drew McOnie and dazzling set and costume design by Takis (not to mention impressively huge hair). The whole show is a riot of colour and vivacity, with plenty to enjoy for younger audience members but a healthy scattering of naughty jokes for the grownups too.
And at the heart of all this fun and froth is that serious message, summed up so succinctly by Tracy herself: “I just think it’s stupid we can’t all dance together.” It might sound like a massive simplification of a huge and complex problem – and it’s true that the show doesn’t exactly offer an in-depth debate of the issues – but in a world that increasingly feels like it’s going backwards, every little helps.
Hairspray is at the Orchard Theatre until 9th September.