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Theatre review: Hairspray/Liverpool Empire

Ian Moore is left pleasantly full

Published on August 20th 2010.

Theatre review: Hairspray/Liverpool Empire

WHO was it who decided to bring the stage version of Hairspray to Liverpool, immediately following a smash Wet End run and successful film version, and cast local boys Michael Starke and Les Dennis?

Hairspray is wittier, funnier, more good-natured and, without being pretentious, more morally and politically correct, than most of its contemporaries set in a similar timeframe - Grease, West Side Story, Dreamgirls

Whoever it was should be applauded. Pure Genius.

Starke and Dennis are sublime as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad respectively, yet it is Laurie Scarth as their daughter, Tracy, who steals the show in this high energy, beautifully choreographed feel-good musical.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, Hairspray tells the story of a chunky teenager who wears what looks like a lacquered bear cub on her head, thinks she resembles Jackie Kennedy and who is both unashamedly and, at times, absurdly sentimental.

She does, however, follow her dreams, wins a spot on a local television dance programme, The Corny Collins Show, and is thus transformed from a chubby outsider into a teen sensation.

Unfortunately, fat people are second-class citizens in her world but when Scarth’s Tracy is bounding about the stage exuding all-American resilience and optimism, an optimism which brings out the inner cheerleader in us all, size doesn’t matter.

O’Donnell and Meehan’s book, on which was based on the John Waters film of 1988, is a salute to being different; being fat, and, more seriously, being black in a racially divided Maryland. So our heroine’s aim isn’t only to do well on the dance floor, beating her plastic-doll schoolmate, Amber, but to integrate Corny Collins’s show, besting Amber’s ruthlessly ambitious, racially bigoted mother, Velma.

Since Clare Halse’s Amber has “acne of the soul”, and Gillian Fitzpatrick’s Velma something like spiritual smallpox, it is obvious Tracy will succeed. But anyone would forgive the show’s wishfulness, given the ebullience of the Shaiman/Wittman score, which evokes the period beautifully, and the quality of the cast, which match the West End, Broadway and film counterparts’ energy with ease.

There may be caricature baddies, garish costumes, front-of-curtain comic songs, a cross- dressing television star and no shortage of appalling gags, but Hairspray is wittier, funnier, more good-natured and, without being pretentious, more morally and politically correct, than most of its contemporaries set in a similar timeframe - Grease, West Side Story, Dreamgirls.

There are stand-out performances at every turn; Sandra Marvin’s magnificent music-shop empress and Emma Dukes’ Penny; Tracy’s dim-but-cute best pal and, from Starkes’s vast, dimpling rhino of a Mrs Turnblad and Dennis's not-exactly-wee husband, we have two actors with enough sly sense of mischief to embellish any script.

Here is full-on, two-dimensional fun, at times almost dementedly full-on. A show that doesn't tickle you into mirth. It forces itself upon you in waves.

The Liverpool Empire’s Hairspray is a breathless production, an absolute winner, a show where you can’t stop the beat!

8 / 10

*Hairspray runs until September 4.

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