Review: Hairspray by York Stage Musicals, Grand Opera House

Hitting the harmonic heights: the cast of Hairspray. Photographs: Tim Clarke / York Stage Musicals
31 Mar 2015 @ 3.01 pm
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Hairspray by York Stage Musicals

Grand Opera House, York

Till Saturday


York Stage Musicals

As we swapped the warmth of the Grand Opera House for the wildness of a York spring night, two things were rattling around in my head.

The first was an echo of the prolonged cheers and applause deservedly lavished on the show by a full house. The second was a question: was this really not a professional show?

Everything about York Stage Musicals’ production of Hairspray shouted quality. From the performance of an incredibly talented cast, through music, choreography, direction and design, this had all the production values of the West End.

The company was aided by the source material, of course. Hairspray is a joyous show filled with cracking songs. However, that does set expectations dauntingly high among an audience – could YSM possibly meet them?

From the first “oh oh oh” of opening number Good Morning Baltimore we knew the answer was going to be an emphatic “yes”.

Mad mums and defiant daughters

The story of how teenage Tracy Turnblad topples racial and physical prejudice in Sixties Baltimore using the triple forces of her personality, hot dance moves and a superhuman hairdo, Hairspray is a musical marvel.

And as Tracy, the show’s beating heart, Maya Tether was a blast. With her belting voice and unstoppable brio, you quite believed that Maya’s Tracy had the power to sweep in the social reforms of the Sixties all by herself.

Quite the performance.

Welcoming the Sixties with a blast of Ultra Clutch: Maya Tether as Tracy Turnblad
Welcoming the Sixties with a blast of Ultra Clutch: Maya Tether as Tracy Turnblad
Like mother, like daughter… Tracy is joined by mum Edna (Joe Wawrzyniak)
Like mother, like daughter… Tracy is joined by mum Edna (Joe Wawrzyniak)

You could see where Tracy got it from when you met her mother Edna, in this deftly funny and unnervingly believable portrayal by Joe Wawrzyniak. His transformation from downtrodden housewife to Baltimore’s biggest glamour queen, and the chemistry shared with twinkly husband Wilbur (Andy Stone), was another highlight.

Powerful mothers and daughters are Hairspray‘s defining characteristic. Jess Gardham as Motormouth Maybelle gave the finest rendition I’ve heard of show-stopping torch song I Know Where I’ve Been, and strutted with the best of them in Big, Blonde and Beautiful.

Maybelle’s daughter Little Inez was served up with an authentic side of sass by Tanisha Butterfield.

Evil former beauty queen Velma Von Tussle, producer of TV’s Corny Collins Show, was played with the sort of steely snap by Toni Feetenby that had men in the audience unconsciously crossing their legs. And Robyn McIntyre was an admirably vicious sidekick as daughter Amber.

Maya Bartley O’Dea was the perfect contrast as a delightfully ditzy Penny Pinkleton, Tracy’s best friend, and another with a nightmare mother, here played with crazed ferocity by Sandy Nicholson.

The boys did well to thrive amid the girl power. Conor Mellor’s Link Larkin, hiding his vulnerability under an Elvis quiff, and lithe-limbed Jemal Felix as soulful Seaweed J Stubbs, looked and sounded the business.

With Darren Roberts upping the cheese quotient as gold-suited telly host Corny Collins, and Robert Readman rattling through a series of cheerily camp cameos, the chaps held their own (well you would with Velma around, not to mention Jackie Cox as a dominatrix prison matron complete with whip).

Terrific team

Timeless – and not a little fruity: Edna and Wilbur, played by Andy Stone
Timeless – and not a little fruity: Edna and Wilbur, played by Andy Stone
Fizzing with energy: the Hairspray company
Fizzing with energy: the Hairspray company

In her directorial debut Jessica Hardcastle marshalled this cast of all the talents with great skill and no doubt much hard work. The pace never flagged, the choreography always sparkled.

Meanwhile musical director Adam Tomlinson and his band were never less than superb. The chorus, including those “nicest kids in town”, hit their harmonies beautifully while dancing with perkiness and style.

And a special mention here to the Dynamites – Jemma Geanaus, Roni Hart and Nadia Douglas – the Supremes-style singers who deserve a show of their own.

Supported by a backstage crew responsible for seamlessly staging a complex show – including fabulously vivid costumes by Jo Keogh and lighting to match by Nick Duncan – this was a true team effort.

What will live on in the memory is the sheer energy of this production. The gales that tried to batter us on the way home seemed listless when compared to the whirlwind of excitement whipped up on the Opera House stage.