Aylesbury Waterside Theatre relaunched this week with a production of Hairspray, a warm hug of a musical that also felt like a declaration of intent from the theatre to deliver joy front, left and centre to its pandemic-weary audience.
The Broadway musical has been playing in the West End since 2007, winning a clutch of Olivier Awards over the years for its uplifting story of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight aspiring dancer in Sixties Baltimore, who wins a part on a local TV show, The Corny Collins Show, and becomes an overnight sensation. The musical’s touch points of body image, fighting racism and the power of youth to change the world keeps Hairspray relevant to 2021 sensibilities. Luckily the depressing reality that – bloody hell! – not much has changed culturally since the Sixties is offset by wave after wave of deftly choreographed dance numbers and songs.
Tracy Turnblad is played by Katie Brace, straight out of London School of Musical Theatre and into her first professional role. There’s a tradition with Hairspray to cast newcomers in the lead role and Brace gives it her all, conveying the energy, optimism and warmth of her character and showing off her strong vocals.
But Turnblad isn’t top billing here. This production brings with it three big musical celebrity names – Norman Hale (formerly of the Eighties comedy duo Hale and Pace) who plays Turnblad’s father; Alex Bourne who is one of the biggest musical stars in the UK with leads in the West End from Buddy Holly in Buddy to Danny Zuko in Grease and Gaston in Beauty and The Beast; and Brenda Edwards, The X-Factor’s 2005 semi-finalist, as Motormouth Maybelle.
Edwards’ role has previously been taken on screen by the likes of Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson – so serious vocal chops are required. That’s no problem for Edwards, whose powerful, soulful vocals are compelling – her rendition of I Know Where I’ve Been was so moving had the audience almost holding its collective breath.
The Dynamite trio (think Baltimore’s version of The Supremes in sequins and syncronised dance moves) are also excellent, and perhaps for me the most replete performance comes from Rebecca Thornhill as TV producer and raging racist Velma Von Tussle. Some serious vocal talent and great comedy timing.
Alex Bourne as Tracy’s mother Edna Turnblad played heavily for laughs and the duet in Act II between Bourne and Norman Pace was one of the highlights of the night – almost panto-esque, as they hammed it up for the crowd and seemed to stifle their own giggles.
It’s not always the case in touring productions that you feel you’re getting West End quality but this performance has that sprinkling of star dust and the audience responded to it with a standing ovation. There was the odd occasion where individual dancers were a bit exposed (the routines worked better with bigger ensembles), and I felt that the talented Akeem Ellis-Hyman, playing Tracy’s friend Seaweed, was singing in a register a little too low for him, but these are tiny gripes really. I left the theatre exactly as Aylesbury Waterside intended – with a smile on my face and wanting more please.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Anyone wanting some uplifting comedic escapism. Ideal for couples, friends or to take the kids – it’s all very PG. At 2 hours 30 running time including the interval it’s not too late for little ones either.
Not for: Some of the younger female cast members talk and sing in the more ‘helium’ style that purists might not appreciate.
See Hairspray at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre until 11 Sept. Tickets from £13.