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Sell-out shows for Hairspray has people dancing in the aisles

The cast of Hairspray

The cast of Hairspray

The standard of amateur theatre in the South West is generally so high these days that you often have to remind yourself that the performers and production team are putting shows together in their hours of leisure rather than work. 

Sometimes the boundaries between professional and amateur are merely noticeable by the occasional duff note or hammy acting performance. But in Frome Musical Theatre’s latest ambitious offering, Hairspray – which ran last week to sell-out audiences – the boundaries become increasingly blurred.

Not only was I skeptical going in to the Memorial Theatre auditorium because of the all white casting in a story of black suppression vs white supremacy, but also because the ‘top of the range new DVD’ ticket prices would be seemingly difficult to justify at a theatre that regularly charges similar prices for professional artistes. Needless to say, I needn’t have worried on either count. FMT are right at the top when it comes to facilitating near professional theatre; the exemplary venue, sound, lighting and band demonstrating this fact throughout the show. That the committee is 15 members strong tells you all you need to know about how this long standing society approach their art; seriously – offering the best possible platform to showcase the cast and crew’s talents. And what talents.

Hairspray is set in downtown Baltimore, USA in the early 1960s and tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a rotund but talented wannabe dancer whose ambition is to dance on local TV programme the ‘Corny Collins Show’. After just about making it through her unfavourably biased audition she discovers the full scale of the bias for the station controller’s spoilt chip-off-the-old-block of a daughter and against the show’s ‘once a month appearances only’ black dancers – something she aims to overcome to help the show become ‘integrated’ while also falling in love with seemingly-out-of-reach poster boy of the show, Link Larkin.

The musical is memorable for not only great songs but an unusually substantial number of named roles, all of which require considerable singing, dancing and acting talent. There is also a large ensemble of chorus and dancers who help to fill out the stage during the company numbers. There isn’t much dialogue but what there is is crisp, sharp and funny and mostly involves Tracy’s father Wilbur and particularly mother Edna (traditionally played by a man). There is always a danger of overly camp pantomime dame in this character and it needs to be played subtly enough to be believed. No problems in FMTC’s version as Jon O’Loughlin’s Edna delivers on both comedy and believability.

Nicole Wooldridge as Tracy is a long term member of the society and highly trained in musical theatre. Even so it comes as no surprise that a role as daunting as this appeared to generate a few nerves in the early moments. She soon grew into the role (with the assistance of some padding!) and was proven to be up to the task of transitioning between singing and dancing – and occasionally both at the same time – with consummate ease.

Excellent performances followed from Michael Graham as smarmy but nice TV host Corny Collins, Leonie Harrison as Amber Von Tussle, Joanne Plenty as Amber’s mother from hell Velma, Ed Henderson as Link Larkin and Ryan Hughes as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the repressed dance leader of the black community. Particularly notable in Hughes’ performance was the credibility of the stylistic dance moves that he was able to convey which if performed by a less talented mover would struggle to convince.

The youthful ensemble, choreographed by director Vicki Klein and led by dance leader Sarah Plenty showcased some wonderful timing and synchronicity. As a side note it’s nice to see a show where the dance director choreographs ‘up’ to the ability of the group, rather than the traditional ‘down’.

If the ‘Duracell bunny’ like energy levels of the cast required for dance alone were impressive, Hairspray doesn’t let you coast through the singing either since there are complex harmonies at every turn. Again, the company rose to the challenge to produce the best choral vocals I’ve ever heard from this group. Special credit must go to the ‘Ronettes-esque’ backing singers, named The Dynamites and played by Dora Bishop, Teresa Bray and Daisy Mercedes for some outstanding vocal gymnastics which added real class to the harmony work.

There are far too many people in the cast to name everyone who caught the eye, but it would be remiss not to mention the sensational Lou Knight as matriarchal mouthpiece Motormouth Maybelle. Maybelle is decisively black and very difficult to pull off by a white actress. Lou’s performance is so convincing, the suspension of disbelief is not even required to buy into her as a brilliant, ballsy and bashful black woman. Her rendition of suppression anthem  ‘I know where I’ve been’ was the spine-tingling highlight of an already terrific show, virtually worth the admission fee alone.

My only gripe, in truth a minor one, was that the band (expertly conducted by David Hynds) were a little loud meaning singers were occasionally having to shout to be heard even in the most sedate parts of the score. You can put that down to ‘opening night creases’ as well as the odd lack of noise in the big dance numbers. So irregular were the whoops of enjoyment I did wonder whether the cast perhaps were directed not to expel shrieks of excitement. If this is the case, I believe this to be the wrong choice. Lack of energy, however, is not something you can accuse this cast of for the most part.

If you were lucky enough to catch this family friendly, feel-good show, I’m sure you’ll have been smiling and dancing all the way home.

Review by Sam Stevens.