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NODA Review - HYT Musical Hairspray 

This bright, brassy whirlwind of a show is something of a breath of fresh air amongst modern musicals. A tuneful, funny, popular show which has something to say and which isn't afraid of tackling meaty issues: this is a musical with a message. Todmorden Hippodrome Youth Theatre created a really special evening of entertainment, thrilling a packed house and breaking the theatre's box office records in the process. This really was an incredibly impressive piece of work and while I never make any differentiation between 'adult' and 'youth' productions when writing a show report as a good production is a good production, irrespective of the age of the performers - having directed many a youth production myself, there is nothing more dishonest, irritating or patronising than being told that the show was good 'considering they're only children'! - there were long stretches of the evening where I had to remind myself that this was an amateur youth production, so professional and experienced were so many of the players on stage.


As is only fitting from a musical based on a John Waters film, 'Hairspray' revels in its camp, retro atmosphere and the requisite feel of Eisenhower-era America was brought to the stage beautifully here. Magnificently staged - the wheeled trucks and the various other props and bits of stylised scenery both created an accurate mood and helped to make for bright and breezy scene changes. Lighting really helped to create a suitably 'pop art' mood and the stage had the camp, kitsch feel the show needs to really come alive with costumes, wigs and make-up adding the icing to the  cake. Added to this, a fantastic orchestra really brought the best out of the score and added polish to the pop pastiche musical numbers which were all very much in keeping with the period. The look, sound and 'feel' of the show was superbly expressed and really made for a professional looking production. Director Martin Cook had evidently put a great deal of time and effort into expressing a vision of the show which really worked and made for a really entertaining evening's entertainment.


The whole ensemble on stage had obviously worked so very hard to create something very special that it almost seems invidious to single out individual performers; nevertheless, it would be an even bigger crime not to give credit where it is due, so here goes! Leading the cast as Tracy Turnblad, Jessica Clarkson sailed majestically through the show carrying all before her. Here was a leading lady with a super voice, lots of confidence and who really looked at home on the stage: incredibly impressive throughout the show, leading, guiding and pushing the show forward at a great pace. Parents Wilbur and Edna were played by Dylan Jones and Lewis Rafter respectively; Dylan really won over the audience's heart with his lovable performance and Lewis really threw himself into the cross-dressing role of Edna Turnblad with enthusiasm. Their duet 'You're Timeless to Me' was one of the highlights of the show for me: really quite a clever song, performed well by Dylan and Lewis. The terrible Von Tussles - representing all that is waspish (or should that be WASP-ish?!) pompous and self-righteous in Baltimore were brilliantly played by Cara Novotny (Velma) and Madeleine Jefferson (Amber) making a terrifying mother-daughter combination. Again, great vocal work and thoughtful characterisation here, along with some killer outfits which were pinpoint accurate too. Local heart-throb Link Larson was essayed with boyish charm by Callum Roberts, revelling in his snake-hipped - and rubber-legged - dance moves with Tom Heys making an impressive Corny Collins, host of Baltimore's leading teen music show: Tom was a solid choice as anchor man and his gang of teenyboppers all threw themselves into the enterprise with gusto - full marks all round. Beth Sutcliffe as Penny Pingleton was a great addition to the ensemble - as was her frumpy mum Prudy (the name says it all) played by Gina Foster - and without exception, all of the rest of the smaller roles were carried off with great style. Special mention must go to Max Anderson who doubled up as both high school principal (male) and gym instructor (female) - two cameo roles which amused the audience no end! Another pair of standout performances came from Kyra Ho and James Waring as Motormouth Maybelle and Seaweed J Stubbs, ably supported by the 'Dynamites' (Rosie Crowther, Holly Smith and Nicole Caddick) and Little Inez (Hannah Stobbs.) Great vocals, confident dance moves and solid characterisations all round here too in performances which really stood out. All of Kyra's musical appearances were really very good indeed and had that tell-tale mark of a quality performance - the nebulous, intangible feeling that goes round the auditorium when the audience as a body both respects a performance and looks forward to that character's next appearance. The whole of the cast, crew and production team are to commended on a solid, professional - dare one say, joyous - production.


'Hairspray' is a show which, at first glance, seems to occupy that section of the show-world that could loosely be labelled 'cult pop pastiche' (one thinks of 'Little Shop of Horrors', 'The Rocky Horror Show' or 'Return to the Forbidden Planet' as possible antecedents) but in fact, the show is so much more than that. If Roy Lichtenstein had directed an episode of 'Batman', or Andy Warhol had got his hands on 'Top of the Pops', this show - and certainly this production of it - couldn't have been a more effective and musically entertaining evocation of time and place, as seen through more knowing and sardonic contemporary eyes. The fact that the show has something to say and gets its point across effectively adds to its appeal as the 'issues' that are addressed are woven into the narrative without being clunky or preachy. On this point, it was also interesting to see that the programme included a statement from the show's authors which outlined their intentions for the show, asking the audience to use their common sense and a level of 'suspension of disbelief' regarding 'Hairspray's thematic content and how it would work given the ethnic make up of the cast involved - and the impossibility of 'blacking-up'! - trusting that imagination on the part of the production team would help the show along. I did initially wonder how a show which addresses issues of race and 'size' would work with a dearth of either black or big-boned cast members but work it certainly did and the Youth Theatre are to be congratulated for this.


Despite the number of great plus points - and the hugely impressive overall result - there were one or two flies in the hair cream which did hold the production back a little. There seemed to be a tendency to gallop through dialogue at an alarming pace and as a result, there was quite a bit of gabbling, with uneven enunciation not always helping to make things clear. This meant that on several occasions, I missed what was being said or sung had had to strain to pick out dialogue and lyrics; feed lines to jokes being rushed through meant that the punch lines fell flat; sentiments being being expressed in songs were sometimes unclear; the narrative occasionally being fogged by a lack of clarity and some humorous moments lacked their full impact. I really don't think this was a technical issue, a case of the orchestra overpowering the performers or an acoustics problem, rather that the tendency to rush meant that things got lost along the way. There's a big difference between moving a show along at a great pace on the one hand, and rushing on the other and I don't think the balance was quite right here. A case of more haste less speed perhaps...? That said, it wasn't an enormous problem - more a case of an issue which stood out given the exceptional standard of the production in every other respect.


Particular highlights for me included the 'split screen' staging of the TV studios and the Turnblad household which made for a great opening; 'Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now' with its mobile dressing tables; the Act One finale was particularly impressive; Seaweed and Motormouth's appearances were always warmly received; Tracy Turnblad was a great character, exceptionally well realised by Jessica Clarkson; musical numbers were uniformly strong; the whole ensemble really taking their chorus work seriously and bringing even the smallest cameo role or individual characterisation to life. All of these things meant that the stage buzzed with energy and the whole evening pulsed with life

With several standout performances, technical support of the highest quality, a clear and intelligent directorial vision, confident staging and choreography with a superb orchestra to really bring a touch of class to the score, this was an enjoyable, interesting and well produced piece of musical entertainment which addressed a number of fairly serious issues in a lighthearted - but nevertheless mature and sensible - way and fully deserved the full house and the rapturous reception it was afforded on the night I attended: it always comes as a treat to see something worth seeing done particularly well. My thanks go to all at the Hippodrome for a thoroughly entertaining production and for making myself and Stuart feel very welcome.