The beat goes on at the Cliffs

IF you like cheese and schmaltz – and plenty do – then there’s no place better to be this week than Southend’s Cliff’s Pavilion.

Hairspray, the musical that also packs a serious message about the 1960s battle against discrimination in the USA is in town, much to the delight of its many fans who whooped and applauded throughout Monday night’s opening performance.

This was my first time seeing of this. I have to confess I missed out on the 1988 movie that became a cult film and the stage musical, which arrived to great acclaim on Broadway in 2002 and the West End eight years ago, has also passed me by. It has become so popular that it has become a regular on the touring circuit.

So it with a huge sense of anticipation that I arrived at the Cliffs. Sadly, I left a little let down. You can’t knock the story. What’s not to like about a young person fighting the odds and triumphing in the game of love and life, or a plethora of feel-good songs and some frenzied choreography? But for me, there was something lacking.

The spartan and somewhat indifferent stage set put the performers totally centre-stage and in the first half of the show, which runs for an hour and 20 minutes plus, they struggled to sustain the momentum. As it happens, the enthusiasm of the audience, familiar with the plot and ever ready to scream and shout, helped them along but I reckon you could cut ten minutes at least and things would be the better for that.

What also didn’t help was a poor sound system that made it difficult to define the vocals, I’ve seen a lot of shows at the Cliffs but none where I struggled to hear as much as this.

The feature role of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and massive ambition as she chases her dreams of dancing on national TV  and tackling institutional racism on the way, is given to big stage debutant Rebecca Mendoza. She has the character required for such a chunky role and she delivers the jokes well, however her inexperience shows at times when her vocal talents failed her, perhaps her undoubted enthusiasm meant she was trying too hard!

The supporting cast would normally feature TV comic Norman Pace, but he was missing for Monday’s first night through I am assured he will be back for the rest of the week. Other than its one star name, the show lost nothing because of his absence as Graham McDuff proved a good stand-in as Tracy’s dad Wilbur, particularly the second half duet with his wife, Matt Rixon. Traditionally the part is played by a man and some big names have stepped into her big smock in the past but Matt doesn’t quite have the star quality and he struggled to make an impact through the show – a somewhat understated pantomime dame – until that duet. It gained from a prop malfunction (or perhaps that’s a stage trick) that got the duo corpsing and prompted some ad-libs that were some of the night’s most memorable moments.

Most of the others also came after the break, which starts with an up-tempo jail scene (played out largely in black and white as a stark and impactful contrast with rest of the colour-packed show), featured 2005 X Factor semi-finalist Brenda Edwards belting out the anthemic ‘I know where I’ve been’ and culminates in the show’s thumping finale ‘You can’t stop the beat’.

Clearly, you can’t and Hairspray will undoubtedly continue to tour and delight its fans. In my view the show needs a little injection of freshness, at times it falters and appears stale – maybe that was just first night glitches being ironed out. And regardless of my disappointment, I ended the night foot-tapping and clapping with the rest of the audience.

It’s a good show, if not a great one, but I can’t deny the majority of the audience loved it.

Hairspray is at the Cliff Pavilion until Saturday, 19 May. Tickets from www.southendtheatres.org.uk.

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