‘You can’t stop the beat!’

For one glorious night, Hairspray the Musical transported theatregoers back in time to Baltimore in the glitzy 1960s, a period and place this writer knows nothing about.

But ignorance ignored, the musical was amazing all the same.

Hairspray balances a magical double act in addressing hard topics of racism and obesity while not taking itself too seriously. Characterizing itself as ‘Broadway’s big fat musical’, Hairspray pokes fun at itself with gusto. The plus sized lead actress Tracy Turnblad sparks off a veritable buffet of fat jokes, puns, and the occasional insult all in good humor. This approach kept the musical light hearted and pleasant while doing justice to its social message.

With a set and cast true to the glamor and glitter of the 60s, Hairspray wouldn’t recognize understated elegance if it hit it in the face with a pecan pie. Opting for flashy costumes, coupled with Do Wop and Motown beats, the musical explodes with energy. Hairspray is unashamedly over the top. The cast overflows with enthusiasm and makes no apologies for the inevitable corniness of the 60s. The jokes and banter are cheesy. This is acknowledged with a nudge and wink; every teenager in Hairspray watches ‘The Corny Collins Show’. This turns out to be a gold mine of comedic genius, and the musical milks the joke for all its worth.

‘I’m Corny Collins and why are we wearing fluorescent clothes when no one can see colors on a black and white TV?’

Compared to other heavyweight musicals in its category, Hairspray Singapore seems to be a relatively small production. The orchestra was unable to conjure the overwhelming wall of sound in the same way that Wicked could. But the music does not disappoint. The cast belted out hit after hit, cumulating in its signature song ‘You can’t stop the beat’, (which has been nicknamed ‘You can’t stop to breathe’ by the cast due to it’s ridiculously long phrases and near non stop dancing). The largest cheer was saved for Edna Turnblad, Tracy Turnblad’s mother, a role that was played by a huge burly man. The rasp of her/his voice paired with heartfelt songs and not so subtle innuendo left the audience in hysterics.

Hairspray doesn’t shirk from tackling hard issues head on. Tracy fights racism on the Corny Collins show by —horrors of horrors, Singaporeans! – Staging a protest. Her unwavering optimism eventually triumphs over racism and bigotry. While such an approach seems naïve, Hairspray proves to be much more tactful that one would give it credit for. The fight against racism comes across as emotional but not dark. Tracy manages to save the day while deftly sidestepping the ‘White Messiah’ trope that shows such as Pocahontas and Avatar (the blue skinned one) have been heavily criticized for.

Obviously a race riot.

Hairspray makes no apologies for what it is, and what it tries to do. It shouts in your face and invites you to join the party. It proves beyond a doubt that intolerance and hate are ideas of the past, and has a whole lot of fun whilst telling its heartwarming story of acceptance.

I’m going to need to listen to that soundtrack one more time.

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Photos from hairspraythetour.com

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