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Hairspray – Sunderland Empire

I remember being about ten and watching John Waters’ groundbreaking Hairspray on repeat. I remember more about the comedy and characters than the more serious racial integration message behind it, and thinking that Divine was actually divine. I enjoyed aspects the remake but still prefer the original, and I’m yet to see the TV remake this year (it’s on my list). Being a musical lover I knew that I had to see the show (I secretly adore You Can’t Stop The Beat), so I was excited when I heard that the production was coming to Sunderland.

The 2007 film remake was based on the Tony award-winning Broadway musical that came out in 2002, written by Thomas Meehan (who wrote the books for the fantastic Young Frankenstein and The Producers musicals) and Mark O’Donnell. The production has gone on to win four Laurence Olivier awards including Best New Musical, and has toured extensively around the world.

The show’s central character is Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Mendoza making her debut), a happy-go lucky overweight teenager with big hair living in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962. She loves dancing, and both her and her classmate Penny Singleton are obsessed with the Corny Collins show, a TV dance show for teenagers. She dreams of being on the show and becoming famous in the opening song “Good Morning Baltimore.” Racial tensions come to light when Tracy and Penny are watching the show at Tracy’s house, when Penny’s mother complains about ‘race music.’ We’re introduced to Edna Turnblad (the excellent Matt Rixon), Tracy’s larger-than-life mother who is agoraphobic and works from home, ironing clothes. It’s announced that one of the dancers is taking a leave of absence (for nine months but no explanation is needed) creating an opening for a new dancer. Tracy is determined to audition, but Edna is worried about her being rejected because of her size. The TV set is recreated beautifully, with the band visible in the background (and so they should be, the catchy musical numbers being such an integral part of the show).

The villainesses- Amber (Aimee Moore) and Velma (Gina Murray)
One of the dancers is the caustic Amber Von Tussle (Aimee Moore), who is selfish and a total brat. Her scheming mother Velma (Gina Murray – both are terrific) just happens to be the producer of the Corny Collins show, and she’s determined that her daughter becomes the star that she failed to be. Amber is dating Link Larkin, a dancer on the show who’s the resident teenage heartthrob. After fighting with Edna about auditioning for the show (she’s trying to protect Tracy from getting hurt) in “Mama I’m A Big Girl Now,” her father Wilbur (Norman Pace, from the TV Comedy Duo Hale and Pace) gives Tracy permission to audition and she bumps into Link. She falls hard for him, which leads to the amusing dream sequence “I Can Hear The Bells.” Not surprisingly, Velma rejects Tracy because of her size and also refuses to let a little black girl audition. 
The Corny Collins Show – Jon Tsouras as Corny, Edward Chitticks as Link and the Ensemble 
Tracy gets into trouble at school because of the size of her beehive, and is sent to detention, where she meets Seaweed (Layton Williams), the son of Motormouth Maybelle (the amazing Brenda Edwards) who hosts Negro Day on the Corny Collins Show (black dancers are allowed on the show once a month). Tracy learns some dance moves, impresses Corny and manages to get a place on the show and Velma is determined to get revenge. Edna gets over her agoraphobia and mother and daughter both get a makeover (“Welcome To The 60s – one of the best songs), before Tracy fires everyone up to march against the TV station and protest for integration, which brings up tension and ends up with most of the cast behind bars, just before the end of Act I. 
Norman Pace at Wilbur and Matt Rixon as Edna
Highlights of Act II include Edna and Wilbur performing “You’re Timeless To Me” which was genuinely funny and heartfelt – both actors seemed to lose it which made the number all the more enjoyable. Brenda Edwards/Motormouth Maybelle’s rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” which details the long fight against segregation is genuinely moving (the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end). Most fans of Hairspray love it for its upbeat, catchy musical numbers, the colourful costumes and fun, quirky characters. If you haven’t seen it for a while, it’s easy to forget in the midst of all of the dancing and fun that the show deals with the serious issue of racial segregation, and it does so cleverly and sensitively. Despite the struggle, the ending is so uplifting and most of the audience (including me) were up dancing for the finale “You Can’t Stop The Beat.”
I was impressed with the staging, costumes, choreography and performances, especially Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy (in her first role since leaving drama school) and Brenda Edwards as Motormouth (her voice is amazing). The orchestra was brilliant and did justice to the excellent score. If you’re feeling a bit low due to the change of season then this show will definitely pick you back up and put a spring in your step. 

★★★★★ A heart-warming, feel-good show which tackles the race issue in 60s America with a lot of heart, and teaches us to reach for the stars despite the obstacles.

Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle and Ensemble
Hairspray is at the Sunderland Empire until Saturday 30th September (7.30pm) – with matinee performances on Wednesday & Saturday (2.30pm). Book tickets here 

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