Hairspray

Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan; music by Marc Shaiman; lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Opera House, Manchester, and touring
(2010)

Michael Ball as Edna

After a twenty-minute delay due to 'technical difficulties', the Opera House curtain went up on another major West End and Broadway hit based on a popular film, the second in two weeks after last week's Spamalot.

Set in Baltimore the 1960s, the show opens with a situation with an obvious strong parallel to the current day as teenage girls watch the current teen music programme, The Corny Collins Show, and dream of being amongst the singers and dancers on the show. When auditions are announced, Tracy Turnblad's mother Edna forbids her from skipping school to go, but her joke shop-owner father Wilbur encourages her to follow her dreams.

At the auditions, Tracy is ridiculed for her size, especially by the sneering producer Velma Von Tussle who is manipulating the show to get her blonde, air-headed daughter Amber crowned 'Miss Hairspray'. With determination, Tracy gets picked up for the show by Corny Collins himself, supported by the show's heartthrob singer Link Larkin. However her sense of justice forces her to organise protests about the racist selection process for the show and she ends up in prison, just as the final dance-off and viewers' vote for Miss Hairspray is about to take place.

The plot is all over the place with some very confusing and unlikely twists and some idealistic outcomes that come rather too easily. However this is countered by a charming and often hilarious script and a continuous stream of massive, show-stopping numbers. This is a show that looked great fun to be in as well as to watch and it elicited quite a few cheers from the audience at several high points in the show as well as at the end.

The cast has a mixture of big names with a great deal of stage experience and some newcomers, which did show in the performances which ranged from decent if mechanical portrayals of the characters to some that really made them their own. In the lead role of Edna, Michael Ball returns to a part that he has often said is one of his favourites, despite not having many songs to sing. He follows in the British tradition of the dame character played as a woman but still very obviously a man, just as Divine did in the original film. He comfortable enough in the part to really play around with it, especially in his relationship with the superb Nigel Planer as Edna's husband Wilbur. Their duet 'Timeless To Me' was filled with corpsing and suggestive ad-libs, but it was one of the biggest highlights of the show and certainly the funniest moment.

Laurie Scarth is good as Tracy, a character who rarely leaves the stage and sings and dances in a lot of the numbers. Emma Dukes is her dowdy friend Penny, which she plays way over-the-top for laughs but it works very well, and she shows she has a superb singing voice in the last number. There is also some wonderful singing and smooth dance moves from Wayne Robinson as the ultra-cool Seaweed, but when it comes to voices, no one could match the astonishing power and control of Sandra Marvin as Motormouth Maybelle whose 'I Know Where I've Been' left the whole audience open-mouthed.

Gillian Kirkpatrick is wonderful as the awful—almost demonic—Velma Von Tussle who revels in her nastiness and also has an incredible voice. Clare Halse is superbly awful as her daughter Amber, and Liam Doyle is bland but pretty just as the part requires, although when he is introduced as 'our Elvis Presley' he sounds more like a member of a 90s boy band.

David Rockwell's set design looks like a 1950s cartoon, with those bright but muted colours and quirky shapes, such as the houses that are wider at the top than at the bottom, which looks great. Jack O'Brien's direction keeps everything moving at an exhausting pace but still gives room for the more experienced performers to have their little moments that really make the show.

The major down side on press night was with the sound, which was harsh to the point of being painful and really stopped many of the songs from having the effect they should have had. When Marvin was singing her big number, I found myself wishing that the microphone could be turned off it was so distorted as I'm sure she could stop the traffic in Quay Street with her voice without any electronic assistance. Hopefully this will be sorted out soon.

Despite this, Hairspray is a hugely-enjoyable romp with some wonderful sixties-inspired numbers, exhausting dance routines, superb comedy and some great performances from some of the best in the business who are obviously having a great time themselves.

To 31st July, 2010

Peter Lathan reviewed this production with a slightly different cast at Sunderland Empire. It was also reviewed by Sheila Connor in Woking, with other cast changes

Reviewer: David Chadderton