Hairspray: There’s substance beneath that coiffed surface

The musical based on John Waters’s 1988 film is frothy but has a social message


Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin

The word “teenager” gained popular currency in the US in the post-second World War period. It seems no accident that there is a clutch of American musicals that use this time frame to explore the intense politics of identity that characterise the heady stage between childhood and adulthood.

Most famously, there’s Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s 1957 musical West Side Story, which used the individual struggle for independence within the peer group as a metaphor for race relations. And then there’s Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s altogether frothier 2002 musical Hairspray, which carries a similarly enlightened social message.

Hairspray, based on John Waters’s 1988 film, is set in Baltimore in 1962, just as the civil-rights movement is gaining popular traction. Tracy Turnbull is a fat girl fighting to fit in at her high school, where skinny minnies dominate, but her exclusion makes her particularly sensitive to segregation, and when she gets the opportunity to dance on the Corny Collins TV Show, she uses it as an opportunity to make her personal experience political.

Jack O’Brien’s production has been on the touring circuit since its premiere on the West End in 2008 (visiting Dublin for the first time in 2010). However, a constantly changing cast gives each hairdo and hand jive freshness. Of particular note, Freya Sutton’s alto voice brings greater gravitas to the role of Tracy, and Mark Benton leads with his belly as her mother, Edna, a terrific performance in drag that secures most of the evening’s big laughs. There are strong support performances from Marcus Collins as Seaweed and Gabrielle Brooks as Inez, the brother-and-sister team who with Tracy will fight to “turn every day into negro day”.

David Rockwell’s set is a cartoon construction of two-dimensional perspectives and bubblegum pinks, a perfect confection of pop-cultural influence. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography, meanwhile, remains a joy to watch, particularly in the ensemble numbers, where “race music” brings sexy full-body moves to the gestural jiving style.

Hairspray is terrific teen fun, but its social statement remains a sober cry against prejudice and the perils of judging others on standards of skin-deep beauty. Until August 3