Hairspray continues to please, with it’s bouncy tunes and appealing story about outsiders finding their place in a society initially unwilling to welcome them in. This year it’s been the (belated) summer musical at the ENO’s home at the London Coliseum.
The story concerns schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad’s ambitions to win a place on the local TV dance show and to integrate the black and white performers, the black company being allowed to perform only on ‘negro day’. The cast for this revival of the production last seen in the West End with Michael Ball just up the road at the Shaftesbury theatre is top notch, with Mr Ball once again doing the honours as Edna Turnblad, as he did for the whole of the previous West End run. He clearly loves the part and displays all the qualities you’d expect from a musical theatre star. Playing his husband Les Dennis proves to be a great choice, being both convincing in the part and with a warm on-stage chemistry between him and Michael Ball’s Edna.
I’m ranking it four stars because of the performances and the brilliance of the score, but it was nearly three, simply because the show is almost defeated by the theatre itself. The Coliseum is vast, with a huge space between the front rows of the circles/balcony and the stage. Even the stalls are kept at a safe distance by the large orchestra pit, sparsely but very effectively filled by the band. Added to that, the stage itself is framed by a front cloth with a TV-screen shaped opening through which we watch the show. As well as being apposite for the plot this also serves to reduce the width of the stage by about a third. In short, the theatre is too big for the show. It feels lost on the stage and remote from the audience. The music itself is so strong it just about compensates for this. Michael Ball is sufficiently bold and twinkly to come across no matter what. And Marisha Wallace storms the place as Motormouth Maybelle, although not all of the cast are as successful.
I’ve seen several of the ENO summer musicals and this problem of scale is not unique to Hairspray, but others seemed to have worked better (for example Bat Out of Hell and Man of La Mancha). Extending the stage over the vast pit would help. Next summer, though, it’s My Fair Lady, which might just be grand enough to live up to the room where it’s due to happen.