HAIRSPRAY (Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Whittman & Marc Shaiman)
Our Lady's Abingdon
12-14 February 2019
Full credit to the members of the cast and crew for staging this challenging show, yet it was a somewhat strange choice. Hairspray takes place in a very particular historical setting, the USA in the early sixties, and has as its background the racial segregation of that time. Although the production tries to cast the underlying message of the show in terms of universal values of 'tolerance' and 'acceptance', the specific social circumstances of America in the 1960s, and the powerful sense of place engendered by the music and dress of the time, somewhat undermine that universalism. It therefore runs a risk of becoming a period piece. One work-around is to emphasise, instead, the fun and and fantastical nature of the storyline, and to aim the production's focus on the music, undoubtedly the show's strongest suite. I'm glad that director Dr Elizabeth Lawson chose to do so.
The plot follows the fortunes of schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad (a great performance by Isobel Morris) who desperately wishes to appear on TV in The Corny Collins Show (the show's groovy eponymous star played by Endre Bessenyei). She makes it there and is smitten by the show's heart-throb Link Larkin (Freddie Lee in show-stopping vocal form, especially in the number 'Without Love'). Along the way Tracy comes up against the show's wicked producer Velma Von Tussle (Eve Wright as the ghost of Joan Crawford come back to life) and her daughter Amber Von Tussle (Isabella Allen, convincing as the jealous, petty, pouty, spiteful, rival for Link's affections).
The plots twists and turns in quite unbelievably ways, and by the beginning of the second act, half the cast are in the women's penitentiary, singing the number The Big Doll House, which was a great way to get things going again after the interval. Other individual performances in particular that caught the audience's notice were Scott Burgess Martos, padded out as as Edna Turnblad, Tracy's plus-size mother, and Ellie Chan as the larger than life Motormouth Maybelle. Zephyr Acworth and Enya Hagan also impressed as Seaweed Stubbs and Little Inez
This was a show with a large cast and some big chorus numbers, and the dozens of students each deserve congratulations for their part in some slickly choreographed pieces (as well as some efficient entrances and exits). The performance space itself was not that big. The space was further reduced by the choice to divide the main stage into two locations: the Turnblad household and the TV studio. Accommodating up to sixty actors on stage in such a restricted environment was challenging, but Elizabeth Lawson blocked things so that it never seemed crowded. The construction of a balcony to give a split level both eased the on-stage population density and gave the musical dance numbers a welcome extra dimension. Credit also due to Miss Page for the choreography.
Praise is also due to the show band, who handled some extremely challenging musical pieces with a smoothness and professional sound that belied their years. The music was the core appeal of the show, with a string of great songs, so having such a strong instrumental ensemble as the motor beneath the bonnet was a a great asset for everyone. Well done to musical director Neil Farrow for pulling it all together in a small and overcrowded minstrel's gallery above the stage.
Photo credit: OLA
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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