Saturday, 14 August 2021

REVIEW: Hairspray at the London Coliseum

Hairspray rang for over 1000 performances in its original West End run from 2007 to 2010 winning 11 Olivier Nominations with Michael Ball playing the role at the opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre. With the Black Lives Matters campaign getting so much recent publicity it is a timely reminder of how things were in the USA in the early sixties with this heart-warming revival at the Coliseum in London with Michael Ball reprising his role as Edna Turnblad, a role he clearly loves.  

The musical written by O’Donnell, Meehan, Shaiman and Wittman has an upbeat message of hope and accepting who you are. This revival is true to the original Broadway production with the same creative team of Director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and Set Designer David Rockwell. If anything, it looks a little small on the gigantic Coliseum stage with a large false proscenium to reduce the stage opening but the energetic performances and strong vocals are big enough to feel the beautiful cavernous Frank Matcham designed auditorium and delight the full house of two thousand seats. It was a bold decision by the Producers to hire this venue but the combination of Michael Ball’s popularity, the strong familiar score and a desire for a post-pandemic theatrical lift is filling the venue and delighting the audience. 

In many ways, the show belongs to Lizzie Bea as the “pleasantly plump” Tracy, the young girl who dreams of bringing about racial integration. She leads the cast with energy and bounce that holds our attention and warms us to her mission. She opens the show from her bed with the wonderful “Good Morning Baltimore” which establishes the strong sixties vibe with silhouetted dancers behind her. She has a good comic touch as seen in the fantasy sequence of “I can hear the bells” when she first meets the heartthrob Link Larkin (Jonny Amies). But absolutely stops the show with the joyous upbeat celebration of “You can’t stop the beat” leading the whole cast superbly.

Marisha Wallace is also wonderful as Motormouth Maybelle, the host of “Negro Day” on the TV show. She has a strong stage presence and vocals as she closes the 1st Act with “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” but is stunningly good in the beautiful and emotional “I know where I’ve been” in the second Act. 

Mari McGinley makes the most of her role as Penny, Tracy’s geeky friend fully inhabiting the role even when not centre stage before her transformation in Act Two and realisation that “I’m pretty”.

Kimani Arthur as Inez and Ashley Samuels as Seaweed are also excellent, full of charm, energy and grabbing their chances to be in the spotlight well. There is good support from Les Dennis as Wilbur especially in the romantic duet “Timeless to me” with Edna including the now-standard pretend corpsing which always delights an audience and from Rita Simons as Velma Von Tussle, the aggressively out of touch TV show producer.

This is a show that makes you smile and laugh, hum the tunes on the way in and on the way out, and ponder on the progress since the sixties and what more there is to do for equality and diversity on stage and in society. It is curiously a show of the sixties and for today and this unique positioning makes it a perfect show to open post-pandemic and bring audiences back for a toe-tapping fun night at the Theatre.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Dress Circle, Row C | Price of Ticket: £87.50
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