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First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

There can only be one musical in the West End that includes the line ‘Feed the monkey / He’s in the back seat’. No, not Doctor Dolittle, it is Hairspray, and feeding the monkey is – as if you didn’t know – a funky dance move performed on the Corny Collins Show, where our heroine, teenager Tracy Turnblad, shakes her ample booty to the infectious rhythms of the early 60s. Caroline Bishop tried to learn the moves at last night’s opening night…

Running for five years on Broadway, and with a star-studded film version preceding it this year, the London production of the musical Hairspray, which originated from John Waters’s 1988 film, arrives in the capital on a wave of momentum, which, happily, explodes onto the Shaftesbury stage in a two-and-a-half hour package of dazzling colour, funky moves, head-infesting music and a feelgood storyline of one girl’s mission to change the world.

It is a simple premise really. It is 1962 and Tracy Turnblad, a plump 16-year-old Baltimore schoolgirl whose preoccupation with dancing and big hairdos lands her in daily detention, auditions for a spot on her favourite tea-time TV programme. The Corny Collins Show is a whiter-than-white, all-American dance show fronted by the precisely quaffed Collins and his troupe of young, slim, shining examples to the kids of America, presided over by witchy station manager Velma Von Tussle, for whom fat, black, or any other kind of different, is unacceptable.

But thankfully, Tracy is here to further integration through the medium of dance. Allaying her cause with that of her new-found friends in Baltimore’s black community, and together with geeky pal Penny and love interest Link, Tracy fights to end segregation in Baltimore – or, at least, on the Corny Collins Show.

Hairspray is billed on the back of Michael Ball and Mel Smith, who play Tracy’s parents Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. Ball seems in his element in a frock, gaining much comedy value from his ample bosoms and behind, while Smith plays Ball’s straight man, milking the pair’s duet Timeless To Me with undisguised pleasure. But they are just two of a huge cast, all of whom get more than a moment to air their sometimes spectacular vocal talents and nifty footwork. Johnnie Fiori as Motormouth Maybelle, Adrian Hansel as Seaweed, Rachael Wooding and Tracie Bennett as Amber and Velma Von Tussle, not to mention the Dynamites and little Lou-Ann (Nicky Griffiths), all make this musical what it is. Newcomer Leanne Jones, in her first professional job after Mountview, steps up to the mark as an endearingly innocent and straightforward Tracy who has got both the moves and the voice, while her true love Link is played by another debutant, the attractively packaged, Elvis-quiffed Ben James Ellis, oozing energy in every dance.

The happy ending leaves a warm and fuzzy feeling, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s songs linger in the head for long after the curtain has fallen, but grasping the fundamental basics of feeding the monkey may necessitate a return visit to the Shaftesbury.



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