Five years on from its Broadway opening, this Tony Award-winning musical inspired by John Waters’ 1988 cult movie finally reaches London, and what a breath of fresh air it turns out to be.
The action takes place in Baltimore 1962 where plump 16-year-old schoolgirl Tracy Turnbald dreams of dancing on the local Corny Collins TV show. Sadly for her, station producer Velma Von Tussle is nearly as prejudiced about people’s weight as she is about the colour of their skin. And so Tracy finds herself in the front line doing her bit to campaign against intolerance, while still finding time to win the heart of cute crooner Link Larkin.
In tackling such a scenario, director Jack O’Brien could have easily overplayed the sentimentality, but instead he offers a fast-paced, feel-good and irresistibly entertaining adventure from start to finish.
In fact, O’Brien ensures that the narrative flow slickly integrates Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s witty libretto, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s memorable score and Jerry Mitchell’s high-energy choreography. The latter’s contribution is outstanding, particularly in production numbers like I Can Hear the Bells and You Can’t Stop the Beat. Add to the mix the vibrant colours of David Rockwell’s sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes and the sixties transformation is complete.
Within an impressive ensemble, spirited Leanne Jones may be making her professional debut as Tracy, but she has all the talent and confidence of a seasoned professional. Ben James-Ellis is charming as love interest Link, while Elinor Collett proves she has a gift for comedy as Tracy’s best friend Penny.
Credit also to Tracie Bennett’s grotesque Velma Von Tussle, Adrian Hansel’s quick-stepping Seaweed and Johnnie Fiori as Motormouth Maybelle, who provides the real goosebump moment of the show in I Know Where I’ve Been. In what has become something of a tradition, a man plays Tracy’s mother Edna, a role it appears Michael Ball was born to play and he is obviously loving every minute.