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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Shaftsbury Theatre       2007-2010

If what you demand of a musical is the serious semi-opera of Lloyd Webber or Les Mis, then this Broadway transfer is not for you.

But if you want a fun night out, with bouncy music, energetic dancing, perky performances and just enough of a plot to hold it all together, then you really can't do too much better than Hairspray.

Based on John Waters' 1988 film, it's the story of Tracy Turnblad, a chubby teenager in 1960s Baltimore whose greatest goal in life is to join the cool kids on the local TV dance show (Americans think Dick Clark, Brits Top of the Pops). Of course she gets there, and also wins the coolest guy, and, almost in passing, brings her African-American friends on to integrate the previously all-white show.

It's a fairy tale of course, but no more so than most musicals, and the few newspaper critics who berate it for treating racial prejudice so lightly are totally missing the point.

If we can celebrate boy-meets-girl or flower-girl-becomes-lady or nun-and-kids-escape-Nazis in the course of a dozen songs, then why not fat liberation and the solution to America's racial problems?

The book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan follows the outline of Waters' film and actually fills in the characterisations more fully.

Marc Shaiman's music repeatedly alludes to pop and rock songs of the period, so wittily that you recognise its originality even as you're haunted by the feeling of having heard the melodies or arrangements before. The lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman are alternately sweet and clever.

The opening 'Good Morning Baltimore' sets the happy tone perfectly, 'Big Blonde and Beautiful' should become the anthem for plus-size women everywhere, and 'You Can't Stop the Beat' is an irresistible finale.

Director Jack O'Brien keeps everything moving, sustains the innocent fairytale air, and generates some fine performances. Jerry Mitchell's choreography is built on kids' dances of the period and thus a bit limited in vocabulary, but there are enough witty touches to keep it fun to watch, and the energy level never flags.

Fresh-out-of-drama-school Leanne Jones is Tracy, and if she isn't quite as star-is-born wonderful as you might fantasise, she still delivers all you have a right to ask for in the way of energy, talent and adorableness.

The real find of the evening is Michael Ball in the drag role of Tracy's plus-size mother.

I will confess that I have never been a big fan of Ball - he has a fine voice, but always struck me as wooden and charmless (No nasty letters, please).

But this role liberates something in him, and he not only proves a first-rate comic performer but also conveys a warmth I've never found in him before. And the fat suit even inspires him to move and dance with an unaccustomed grace.

Mel Smith is somewhat underused in the role of Tracy's father, but Johnnie Fiori shines as the den mother of the black kids. Tracie Bennett and Rachael Wooding have fun as mother-and-daughter villainesses, and the rest of the supporting cast are all fine.

So hurrah for Tracy Turnblad, hurrah for Leanne Jones and Michael Ball , hurrah for John Waters for thinking it all up to begin with, and hurrah for Hairspray!

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Hairspray - Shaftsbury Theatre 2007