Echo Youth Theatre are building a growing reputation for presenting large scale productions that are well crafted and enthusiastically performed by their young members. Filling the ‘Open’ venue in the lofty former Barclays banking hall on Bank plain is a considerable achievement but this company rise to the challenge. The venue itself has changed, for the better, since their last production, with the rather odd gallery in the centre removed to restore the original scale and scope of the place.
Hairspray is a big feel-good musical show that has appeal to all ages. It has nostalgia for the Sixties and the brash new teenage culture of America, some great songs and lots of dancing, a romance storyline, all set against a big story of cultural change as the younger generation lead society into integrating divided groups. In this musical the integration being sought is between the black and white communities of Baltimore with feisty teenagers showing their elders the way forward, if only they would listen. A perfect metaphor for divided Brexit Britain, perhaps.
Kayleigh Gare starts the show in fine voice and is on stage almost throughout as the big bundle of energy that is Tracy Turnblad. Kayleigh never misses a moment in giving us memorable high energy performance as the determined young Tracy. She enjoys the mostly consistent support of her well proportioned seamstress mum Edna (Harry Smith) and her joke shop proprietor father Wilbur (Toby Ellett) and the companionship of schoolfriend Penny Pingleton (Rosie Spencer). The girls want to join the dance cast of the local TV station ‘Corny Collins’ show, produced by the pushy Velma Von Tussle (Tilly Chitty) and featuring her slim white daughter Amber Von Tussle (Morven Renfrew). Being overweight and having a different fashion aesthetic to the prevailing skinny standard Tracy is not hired for the show, and returning to school is sent to ‘special education’ along with many black kids whose education is being blocked by racist teachers. There she is taught many dance moves by Seaweed J Stubbs (Lezley Sibanda-Mabaleka) which she uses to great effect at the school hop, where Corny Collins (Harry Wilson), hosting, hires her on the spot for his TV show. Tracy steals Amber’s boyfriend the young crooner Link Larkin (Josh Oram) and gets hired as the marketing face of Mr Pinky’s ‘Hefty Hideaway’ dress shop for the plus size girl.
Romance blossoms between Tracy and Link and simultaneously between Penny and Seaweed, even when her parents try and lock her up in her bedroom. Many more twists and turns of the plot follow, all set out in lively song and dance routines from the well rehearsed young cast.
This show is always great fun and this cast deliver the fun as professionally as any West End theatre ensemble can. The details are engaging: Penny and Tracy remind us with their demeanour and gesture that they are still skittish schoolgirls while becoming campaigners and falling for their first loves. Rosie’s Penny is just right as the gawky sidekick discovering her own strength and allure – an audience favourite. The young male leads Josh and Lezley playing Link and Seaweed are very good, both great singers and dancers who command the stage when they perform. Nelma Lemos has just the right presence for the role of Motormouth Mabel, Seaweed’s mother and record shop owner while Lauren Wood in her Echo Theatre debut brings Seaweed’s little sister Inez to life in eye-catching style. Harry Wilson is great fun as the confident and showy TV presenter Corny Collins who understands his changing audience a bit quicker than his producer Velma wants as sponsors recognise that integration means bigger sales for their teenage-targeted products. Very America.
The biggest role in every sense in Hairspray is Edna Turnblad, the frustrated mother invariably played by a male lead. The
role was pioneered by the wonderful Divine, in his last ever film performance before his untimely death. The original John Waters film was possibly the first that this team made that was not seriously X-rated after cult classics including Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Best make sure your breakfast is well down before you search those titles. However the oversized talent of Divine has set the standard for one of the most joyous of musical stage roles, and Harry Smith has a whale of a time in this Norwich production. He adds value with gesture and expression throughout that are entertaining yet also full of pathos as she/he sees life passing by and dreams fading, only to be revived by her feisty daughter Tracy. His romantic duet with husband Wilbur (Toby Ellett) singing ‘You’re Timeless To Me’ balances capable singing and dancing prowess with well measured comedy, and rightly brings the house down. Toby brings just the right zany warmth to the role of the joke shop owning Dad who dotes on his daughter Tracy while being the perfect foil for the over-the-top Edna.
With 48 young stars on stage Director Dan Rayner can feel proud of their collective achievement. This show, like so much in our cultural life, shows just how much we benefit from families from across the world coming to live in our local communities and it also shows us how important it is to look to young people to guide us towards acceptance and celebration of diversity. Setting this powerful message in such lively and music-packed show as Hairspray make this an unmissable evening in Norwich life.
© Julian Swainson 2019
Hairspray is at Open, Norwich until 20th April.