Welcome Baltimore! (and the Sunderland Empire). I’m gonna shake and shimmy it with all of my might today! Tonight at the Empire we learned why you can’t you can’t stop the beat! A night of enjoyable songs, standout moments an amazing stage debut in her hometown for Katie Brace.
Tonight I had been invited to the press night for Hairspray The Musical currently on tour. Starring television presenter and previous X Factor contestant Brenda Edwards*, Comedian Norman Pace, and Alex Bourne. I love nothing more than a local star appearing, and on this tour we have Katie Brace, making her professional stage debut as Tracy Turnblad in this tour.
It’s Baltimore 1962, where Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, is on a mission to follow her dreams and dance her way onto national TV. Tracy’s audition makes her a local star and soon she is using her new-found fame to fight for racial equality whilst finding love along the way while herself encountering personal prejudice.
Hairspray is based on the 1988 film of the same name, and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Hairspray originally opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 2002. Following the musical’s phenomenal success on stage, a film of the musical was released again in 2007 which starred John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron.
The above was the only reference I had to this production and to be honest, as much as I enjoyed this show it just skipped a beat for me. If like me the 2007 film is your point of reference be aware the stage production is different to the film, so scenes you may expect aren’t there.
The cast as a whole put in more than worthy performances and are the reason I came away pleased at what I had seen. I think it was let down with a lack of staging and in parts the sound quality. The stage was quite minimal, and while I find that sometimes less is more, in this production it needed a bit more. The lighting was cleverly used and I also liked the fact at certain points we got to see the live band. I found on a few occasions the sound quality let down a few of the singers who clearly have an abundance of talent and great voices but were harder to hear in some instances.
The beat goes on because of the cast and chemistry. Katie Brace, in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad and making her professional debut (not that you’d know) truly excelled. Not to mention her being back in the Sunderland Empire, this was in front of a home crowd. Her portrayal was everything I wished for, and for me carried this production through. She was daft, funny, hopeful, naïve and perfect as Tracy Turnblad, portraying this young girl in 1960s America that sees past the racial prejudices that were around her, and seeking to break them down in her own small way while encountering many prejudices against herself along the way. You could see Katie smile, boogie and enjoy every moment she was on stage and brought an energy that i loved.
Brenda Edwards while not introduced as early in this stage version as the 2007 film does, shows us she has a powerhouse voice as Motormouth Maybelle and when she sang you knew about it. There was no denying she’s a real talent and had the audience applauding especially after a fabulous rendition of ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’. Brenda’s was truly the voice that reverberated around the theatre.
Mother Turnblad, aka, Edna Turnblad played by Alex Bourne brought laughs and had great chemistry with Norman Pace who filled the role of husband Wilbur. They had a lovely scene and number with ‘You’re Timeless to Me’ and you really see them come together, although personally a few of their jokes passed me by, had the audience in laughs.
Richard Meek provides the smooth sophistication of TV presenter Corny Collins, Rebecca Thornhill and Jessica Croll put in good performances of well to do TV producer and current hairspray champion Velma and Amber Avon Tussle respectively. Akeen Ellis Hayman shows he has rhythm and dance, and a voice to boot. However he was one where I felt sound May have let him down a tad. Rebecca Jayne- Davies is funny and brings one liners as corny best friend to Tracy Turnblad. Lastly Ross Clifton brought an enjoyable performance as the love interest with the smoothness of Zac Efron..
While there were standout cast members and moments, overall I just wished it had a little more. I didn’t come away feeling wow’d, but did have an enjoyable night. It ended with the classic number ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ that got everyone involved and maybe had the energy that I hoped for throughout. The beat goes on in Sunderland, and you may very well feel the motion in the ocean more than I did tonight. I’d always say go and check it out and make your own mind up!
Hairspray continues at the Sunderland Empire until Saturday 15 January 2022. Tickets priced from just £13* are available from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022* or online at www.ATGtickets.com/sunderland*
*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to telephone and online bookings. Calls cost up to 7p per minute plus your standard network charge.