Mark Ludmon reviews the joyful production of the musical Hairspray at the London Coliseum starring Michael Ball
Hairspray is back just when we need it – and the latest production at the London Coliseum hits all the right notes. First staged in 2002 and set in 1962, the musical champions compassion and equality at a time when, for many people, these qualities still feel under attack, and its songs and dance numbers have an irresistible feel-good energy that lifts you when times are tough.
Lizzie Bea steers the show magnificently as Tracy Turnblad, a teen who dreams of being a dancer on TV pop programme The Corny Collins Show despite not conforming to the skinny conservative looks that the producers favour. At the same time, she wakes up to the racism in her home town of Baltimore and helps to instigate a campaign to fight segregation and get black kids into the TV show’s main dance corps.
Tracy draws in her best friend, Penny Pingleton – a sweet and funny performance by Mari McGinlay – and the show’s teen Elvis-like heartthrob, Link Larkin, played with pubescent appeal by Jonny Amies. While Tracy acts as white saviour, her black friends step up their struggle for civil rights including Seaweed J Stubbs – a mesmerising Ashley Samuels – and his mother, Motormouth Maybelle, in a show-stoppingly stunning performance by Marisha Wallace, most notably with soul-style power ballad, “I Know Where I’ve Been”.
Another stand-out performance is Michael Ball, returning to the role of Tracy’s mum, Edna Turnblad. With deep-voiced charm, he takes Edna on her own journey from an out-of-touch socially phobic housewife to a glorious style icon. With flawless timing, he brings a mix of hilarity and poignancy, particularly piling on the comedy in his double act with Les Dennis as husband Wilbur. In fact, the whole cast from principals to ensemble are flawless, including Rita Simons as conniving producer Velma Von Tussle, Georgia Anderson as her spoilt daughter Amber, and Michael Vinsen as the charismatic Corny Collins.
Directed by Jack O’Brien, Hairspray is a slick, pacy production, with Jerry Mitchell’s dynamic choreography perfectly capturing diverse styles of dance. From “Good Morning Baltimore” to “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, nearly every song by Marc Shaiman and Scott Witman is a showstopper. It all looks stunning too, from David Rockwell’s set to William Ivey Long’s 60s-inspired costumes and Paul Huntley’s hair and wig design. Empowering and uplifting, Hairspray has brought some much-needed joy back to the West End.
Running at the London Coliseum to 29 September 2021