Set in Baltimore, USA in 1962, the story sees Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized teenager, live out her dream of dancing on popular TV variety programme The Corny Collins Show and, against the odds, become an overnight star. Using her new-found fame, Tracy campaigns for racial integration on the show.
BISP brought the musical to audiences with two casts: the younger years, who performed on Tuesday (Apr 2) evening, and the older years, who took the lead on Monday and Wednesday. A glance at the school’s philosophy and perhaps it’s not such a surprise that they fixed on Hairspray, even for their younger students. ‘We should be mindful of the needs and rights of others’ takes first place in their list of four key values.
Ahead of Wednesday night’s sell-out performance – the last of the run, famously the best – I head to the dressing rooms in search of Emily Norman, the Head of Drama. Crew attend to last-minute costume malfunctions, the final hair grips secure wigs in place and there’s a nervous energy in the air.
“I’ve done Hairspray before and loved it. It’s fun, entertaining, full of crazy dancing and the kids really enjoy it,” she says, amid the pre-show chaos. “We’ve been rehearsing since January and, as we’ve got closer to the show, Saturdays and Sundays as well.”
Emily hails from the UK where she taught at a performing arts school that has seen students go on to win reality talent shows The Voice and X-Factor, perform with dance troupe Diversity and appear in TV soap opera EastEnders. That’s some impressive alumni.
It’s safe to say my expectations are high. And I’m not disappointed.
Hairspray has been from screen to stage and back again, and while each incarnation has its own style – from John Waters’ 1988 film to the 2007 remake to the West End and Broadway stage adaptations – they all share that same tremendous energy. BISP’s offering is no different. The students are all-singing, all-dancing and all-American from the opening chords of act one until the final bows at curtain call.
It’s hard not to get swept up in it all: the pop, soul and rhythm and blues soundtrack provided by the orchestra, the floral swing dresses spinning across the stage, the beehive hairdos grazing the auditorium ceiling.
The students don’t miss a beat in their delivery of the musical’s gags and witticisms – which is particularly impressive given the range of nationalities involved – and there are countless laugh-out-loud moments. Edna and Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s parents, form a fantastic double act and quickly become audience favourites. Carrying on tradition, Edna is played by a male student who makes a re-entrance in act two from a giant can of hairspray to raucous laughter and applause.
There are some goosebump moments courtesy of the cast’s stand-out voices, too. As Motormouth Maybelle, the host of Negro Day on the The Corny Collins Show, and Seaweed, her son, deliver their respective solos, eyes dart around the room as if to say, “Are you hearing this?” Their voices are rich and soulful and ring out into the auditorium.
A special mention must go to the show’s choreographer, a mother of a student at the school, who worked break times, lunch times, after school and at weekends to get the cast twistin’, tap dancing and doing the mash potato in perfect time.
Be sure to get a ticket for BISP’s next performance. Plans are already in place for an inventive outdoor show that you won’t want to miss…