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Hairspray (Susan Elkin reviews)

Music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Based on John Waters’s 1988 film of the same name.
society/company: Cambridge Theatre Company
performance date: 21 Dec 2019
venue: Great Hall at The Leys, The Fen Causeway, Cambridge CB2 7A

You can’t go far wrong with Hairspray if you have a strong youthful cast so that you can create spectacular choreography as Jo Rix does here: the the tap-dance number outside the prison in Act II, for example, is a tour de force.

Another reason for this show’s success is its now familiar, upbeat plot. Dumpy, ordinary teenager Tracy Turnblad (Laura Saunders) wants to sing and dance on a TV show in her native Baltimore. She gets sidetracked by a campaign for racial equality on said TV show, eventually effects change, wins a title and starts a relationship with a boy she really fancies. It’s a fine show with witty book (Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) with only the gentlest of double entendres. And all that is in accomplished hands with director Holly White.

One of the potential problems with Hairspray is that you need a strong contingent of black actors and the performing rights preclude blacking up – in the unlikely event that anyone in 2019 would want to. This company has the wonderful Trenetta Jones (a Cambridge regular) as Motormouth Maybelle. She can sing anything and makes a fine job of her Big Blonde and Beautiful number as well as commanding the stage with personality. Zacchaeus James McEwen, whom I haven’t seen before, is a suitably charismatic dancer and singer, as Seaweed. Otherwise most of the people dancing in the ‘negro’ record shop are, with a couple of talented exceptions, white and we have to use our imagination.

Saunders, who has an enviable full belt, finds the right naïve wistfulness – and later moral determination – in Tracy. Alan Hay puts in a sensitive and often funny but not grotesque performance as Tracy’s mother. Leo Stewart Oakley is good value as the Elvis-like, ambitious but decent Link and Richard Scarr shows real versatility in sliding in an out of several roles.

A word of praise too for the sound coming from the unseen eight-piece band led by James Harvey. There is, in particular, great stuff by Simon Andrews on reeds and Jason Ward on guitar,

CTC produces a range of shows – some are youth theatre and others are more general community theatre. This very pleasing production of Hairspray uses a talented, mixed age cast who work impressively together.

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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