5-HG2_8746-1391Manchester audiences may be spoilt for choice at the present time with both The Lion King, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert currently pit-stopping as part of their UK tours, however, on the strength of last night’s performance you will be hard pressed to find a stronger and more uplifting production than the current UK tour of Hairspray. The Lowry marks the opening venue of a fairly lengthy UK tour (at present playing through until September of this year) and if the production is in this condition after just three performances, then the show has a great and highly successful run ahead of it.

Based on John Waters’ 1988, cult comedy of the same name, Hairspray, featuring music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan ran for 2,642 performances in its original Broadway run and swept the boards at the 2003 Tony Awards with a total of eight wins out of thirteen nominations. The show then transferred to the West End in 2007, with Michael Ball and Leanne Jones taking over the reigns from Tony Award winners Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur, in the lead roles of Edna and Tracy respectively, and the production, running for over 1,000 performances, garnered a record-breaking eleven nominations at the 2008 Olivier Awards, with Ball and Jones picking up the gongs for Best Actor and Actress respectively.

Set in 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland, the show follows the travails of the plump teenager Tracy Turnblad, who, dreams of one day dancing on the local TV network program ‘The Corny Collins Show’ and catching the eye of  teenage heartthrob, Link Larkin. After winning a place on the show and garnering an unexpected overnight celebrity status, the show then begins a powerful and effective exploration of racial prejudice and the injustices of 1960’s American society, as Tracy fights hard to campaign for equality and struggles to integrate the show.

Whilst this is undoubtedly an over the top, colourful and joyous feel-good show, there is a very powerful, resonant and highly relevant message cleverly underlying the piece which is never lost sight of and adds further power and emotional impact to the piece.

7-HG2_8975-141For the current UK tour, Mark Benton and local newcomer, Freya Sutton (making her professional debut) now fill the substantial shoes of the larger-than-life mother and daughter team of Edna and Tracy, and I have to admit the production could not be in safer hands.

Sutton is brilliant in the central role of Tracy, and though there were a few minor vocal wobbles in her opening number (mainly due to the accompanying choreography and some sound issues) she proved faultless throughout, delivering a strong, reliable and very well-realised debut performance, and she and Benton make for a memorable pair. Though Benton obviously does not possess the vocal prowess that Michael Ball has, he brings a new, thoughtful interpretation to the role, which, combined with experience and some fine comic-timing, makes for a warm and highly effective performance.

Sandra Marvin is superb in the role of the ‘big, blonde and beautiful’ Motormouth Maybelle, rightly bringing the house down with a sublime performance of the stirring ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’.

Paul Rider is very effective as Wilbur, Edna’s faithful, loving husband, who only wants the best for his daughter encourages Tracy to follow her dreams, and provides some touching moments.

The production cannot really be faulted and there are strong performances from former X Factor finalist Marcus Collins, who delivers some great vocals and makes a very strong stage debut as Seaweed; Lucy Benjamin as the scheming producer Velma Von Tussle; Gemma Sutton as her spiteful, self-obsessed daughter Amber; Luke Striffler as heartthrob Link Larkin, Josh Piterman as Corny Collins; Lauren Hood as Penny Pingleton; Gabrielle Brooks as little Inez and a fine high-energy ensemble.

MARCUS-COLLINS-AS-SEAWEED-STUBBS-11Special mention though must go to incredible show band, led brilliantly under the hand of Musical Director and Pianist Peter White, who really drive the show and deliver an outstanding rendering of the complex and high-energy 1960’s dance/Rhythm and Blues infused soundtrack.

The show is still as strong as ever and it is wonderful that no expenses have been spared for the new touring production (which is sadly happening far too often lately). David Rockwell’s set is wonderful and very practical, Jack O’Brien’s direction and staging and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography are still very fresh and vibrant and the pacing is superb throughout. Though there are some gentler, more poignant moments, leaving time to effectively drive across the message of the piece, the energy levels are never given time to diminish and the show flows beautifully right up to the now famous finale.

A rewarding, uplifting, feel-good musical in every sense of the word and I highly recommend you catch it as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including a 20-minute interval.

Final Performance at The Lowry, Salford Quays: Saturday 23 February, 2013.