(seen at the afternoon performance on 15th September 2021)
This show is candyfloss wrapped around a 10000-volt cattle-prod. At first glance a bit of fluffy nonsense, but with plenty to say about equality and discrimination, delivering an important message with entertaining subtlety.
1962 Baltimore, USA. Sophomore high-schooler Tracy Turnblad (Lizzie Bea) is obsessed with local TV teen show “Corney Collins” (Michael Vinsen) and particularly dancer Link Larkin (Jonny Amis). She auditions but finds herself out in the alley with everybody else who is not young, skinny, and white All-American. Her fightback is witty, inspiring, amusing and surprisingly moving - delivered through colourful dialogue, music, and dance.
The monkey is new to this stage show, having missed it first time in London (five postponed attempts to see this production didn’t help either). It is glad it made the effort, as there is plenty to love.
Lizzie Bea is a ball of energy building instant rapport with the audience. Hairdresser mother Edna (Michael Ball) is the perfect foil, his experience blending with her exuberance. Husband Wilbur (Les Denis) gets in on the act too, countermanding his wife where it matters but showing how much his family and relationship matter with a fun “front cloth” number “(You’re) Timeless To Me.” Even if the scripted corpsing and ‘spontaneous’ asides were obvious, it was still fun.
Blocking Tracy’s way, show producer Velma Von Tussle (Lori Haley Fox – in for absent Rita Simons) and daughter Amber (Georgia Anderson) were the perfect entitled pair, antithesis of the Turnblad family and impressively written.
On Tracy’s team, black store owner Motormouth Maybelle (Marisha Wallace) stops the show with “I Know Where I’ve Been” and holds the entire side of town in authoritative strong hands. Among them, Little Inez (Kimani Arthur) should be seen by the casting director of “Dear Evan Hansen” for Zoe Murphy, while Seaweed J. Stubbs (Ashley Samuels) will never go short of musical theatre work on this form.
The entire ensemble kicks up a storm, Jerry Mitchell giving them authentic moves and a means to occupy the vast space of the Coliseum stage. Sadly, designer David Rockwell chose to cut the width down (to the detriment of those seated more than a couple of seats off the centre aisle in the front stalls). Sound designer Steve C. Kennedy also failed to grasp the acoustics at times, with lyrics swallowed by the wide orchestra pit on too regular a basis.
Director Jack O’Brien seems not to have gripped the pace too firmly either, with the show barely taking flight until a well-staged “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now” seems to fuel-inject the entire company’s engines for spectacular take-off. After that, it flies almost all the way. Sure, there are moments when the action sags, particularly in the second half as some setting-up is required to rebuild momentum after the act one finale rather unbalances things, but that’s an issue with the show itself.
On the plus side, William Ivey Long (costumes) and most vitally Paul Huntley’s wigs and hair ensured the actors could be seen right up in the balcony... in fact, if they required a trim, that’s where Edna would need to be to administer it.
Years ago, just around the corner at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane premiered most of the biggest Broadway hits of the Golden Age. “South Pacific.” “Hairspray” its natural successor in carrying the message that people should simply dance together.
There’s a couple of weeks left for you to see them do just that. The monkey suggests you take it. It is unlikely such an energetic large-scale revival of this show will come along again any time soon, so don’t let them stop the beat before you do.