(reviewed at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 15 February)
This new touring production of the “feel-good” musical comes from Leicester’s Curve Theatre and is a first-rate demonstration of how really committed performances allied to deceptively simpe choreography and a reliance on fabulous costuming rather than elaborate sets can compete with anything the West End has to offer.
You probably know the story, and may even have nostalgic memories of the 1950s and 60s. Television is still in its black and white phase and Baltimore keeps its Black and White population well segregated. Must-see viewing each week is Corny Collins’ teenage dance show, dependent on its sponsors so ever mindful of the barriers which should not be crossed.
Corny, his producer Velma Von Tussle and the whole White Baltimore establishment haven’t reckoned with plump little Tracy Turnblad. It’s not the easiest of parts, but Freya Sutton (who has played it before) takes Tracy’s mix of ambition, first-love pangs and determination to do what seems right to her – regardless of the consequences – ten knows how to use the music to define and express all her conflicts.
If Sutton is rightly the star, there are some other major twinklers in this galaxy. Tony Maudsley as Edna, Tracy’s mother, never over-camps the part and is ably abetted by Peter Duncan as Wilbur Turnblad, a loving husband and father full of good ideas but short on the ability to implement them. Claire Sweeney as Velda, the show-biz mother of Amber (Lauren Strood), Brenda Edwards as Maybelle, the outspoken mother of Dex Lee’s Seaweed and Monique Young as Penny stand out in a large cast.
The girls’ costumes and wigs glitter and swirl to fill the stage with movement and colour (some of the quick-changes must be a backstage nightmare). Musicals with a message can appear badly fractured for all the authors’ and producers’ good intention. This one doesn’t bark or bluster, but its message of understanding and tolerance for surface differences is not in the least diluted by the gentle approach. You don’t usually go to a musical for a history lesson. There’s one here, but it’s an extremely palatable one.
Haispray runs at the Cambridge Corn Exchange until 20 February with matinées on 18 and 20 February. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich 29 March-2 April, at the Milton Keynes Theatre 4-9 April and at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend 16-21 May.