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Hairspray JR

by on 29 February 2020

All in Place

Hairspray JR

by Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Questors Youth Theatre at Judi Dench Playhouse, Questors Theatre, Ealing until 7th March

Review by Vince Francis

Hairspray JR is a cut-down version of the full musical, Hairspray, edited to be family friendly and thus a candidate for schools or youth theatre productions.

For those who may not be familiar, the original Hairspray is an American musical with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on John Waters’s 1988 film of the same name. The action is set in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962 and the songs include 1960s-style dance music and downtown rhythm and blues. The plot revolves around the heroine, teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance programme based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show. When Tracy wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight, leading to numerous consequences. One consequence is stealing the boyfriend of the incumbent Miss Teenage Hairspray; an altogether bigger consequence is the beginning of social change as she campaigns for racial integration on the show.

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So, where to start? Well, the show is a one-act version, running for approximately 75 mins and, with a curtain up time of 7:15pm, it is both appealing to and practical for parents and the children involved. It is playing in the main auditorium, where the stage thrust has been removed to provide space for extra seating facing the proscenium and a walkway created in the space surrounding this seating.

The production itself is a delight. I did wonder whether abridging the book to this extent might mean that some significant elements may be lost. Some are, of course, for example the relationship between Tracy’s parents, Edna and Wilbur, isn’t explored to the same extent as the full production, which means their comedy duet (You’re) Timeless to Me is dropped. However, Alice Barker and Joshua Carr in the respective roles capture the deep connection between the two. There are a couple of other numbers omitted, but actually – dare I say it – they aren’t missed as much as I thought they might be. So, the lesson for me is that this is a production in its own right and should be treated as such.

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Emily Turner gives a beguiling performance as Tracy Turnblad, having an excellent singing voice and a sense of innocence and wholesomeness that is key to the character.

Isaac Beck has captured the spirit of the 1960’s television presenter; slick, slightly sickly, but always seemingly in control. Similarly, Sam Thompson Roche’s Link Larkin provides the veneer of Elvis-like louche cool that cracks with the warmth of true affection. The Temptations-style number It Takes Two is one to savour.

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I’ve often heard actors say that playing baddies is more fun that playing goodies and Blonda Bolganschi, who I’m sure is delightful in real life, is clearly having fun here providing us with the deliciously spiteful over-indulged princess that is Amber Von Tussle in the process. A nod here, too, to Stella Robinson’s interpretation of Amber’s ambitious mother, Velma, which was equally forcefully played.

William Connor gives an admirably assured and mature portrayal of Seaweed J. Stubbs, complimented by some of the slickest dance moves in the show.

I like Motormouth Maybelle ‘s rendition of the iconic I Know Where I’ve Been very much. Motormouth is played by Destiny West, whose voice is well suited to this number, but I felt she was a little nervous, which is perfectly understandable for opening night in the main house. She needn’t be, in my view, and once she relaxes a little, I’m confident that will soar.

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The direction of the piece was overall pleasingly pacy and made good use of the space, with cast and chorus using the auditorium stairways and the passerelle to great effect – particularly in minimising the crowding that can take place exiting the stage after a big chorus number. Also, the use of suggested scenery, such as the hand-held jail bars, helps to keep things rolling.

Sarah Page’s choreography hits the mark with period appropriate moves and a well-disciplined chorus. Everyone looks confident and happy in what they’re doing – well, nearly everyone, but, hey. The three girls as backing singer-dancers work particularly well.

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Musical Director Dave Roberts is well established in youth theatre, his experience stretching back beyond 1996, when he formed Starlight Theatre Company. This experience shines through the performances both of principals and the chorus – and, indeed, the band. I liked Chris Edwards drum percussion lines a lot and had a sneaking suspicion he may be adding to the score. If that’s true, then credit to him, but also to Dave Roberts for being confident enough in his team to give that space.

Great use is made of colour in the design. The set consists of a decorated cyclorama with a large angled square frame set slightly downstage, which represents the television screens of the time and provides a focal point for parts of the action. Other pieces, such as jail bars, are set and struck by the cast as required. The use of bright colours is effective in suggesting the décor of the period and supporting the generally upbeat spirit of the show. Costumes reflect this approach too. Everyone on stage looks authentic and comfortable in their rig. The ‘glam’ costumes sparkle and the day-to-day costumes fit nicely with each other. Good straightforward lighting brings out the best in both and the use of strobe in one of the later scenes is very effective.

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Sound-wise, Danny Tigg’s design was exactly what was required. The score for this show is energetic and soulful and there is a risk that the band could run away with it and overpower the cast. To Dan’s credit, that isn’t the case here. There is a bit of ‘techie-ness’ used that gets the musicians wired directly into the sound desk, thus removing the need for any local amplification. I think – I may be wrong – that even the drummer was playing an electronic kit, which was ideal for this production, as the output levels are wholly under the control of the desk. The sound desk in Questors is in the auditorium, so the sound operator can monitor and adjust according to what’s going on. The benefit is twofold, in my opinion: firstly, the musicians can still play with all the energy that is required and secondly, that energy can be managed to a level that is pleasing to the audience and supportive to the cast.

From the optimistic opening number Good Morning, Baltimore, to the celebratory closer, You Can’t Stop the Beat, this is a joyous production and a great night out. See it if you can.

Vince Francis
February 2020

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

One Comment
  1. Helene Hearn permalink

    I loved the Saturday night performance. I have not seen such an excellent, well directed and executed young people’s performance in many years. In particular the actress for Tracy was a fantastic choice as she fulfilled her part most excellently in every aspect, singing, acting, dancing. I am sure she will go far if she chooses this as a career in later life.Everyone did their part relaxed and uncontrolled giving their individual personality to the role completed. Highly recommend.

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