Spring was definitely in the air in central Manchester this evening, and the light evening and warm air felt like the perfect backdrop for the arrival of 'Hairspray' at the Opera House for a two week run over the Easter period. This cult 1988 John Waters movie was turned into a Tony award winning Broadway sensation in 2002, and has been delighting audiences with its catchy tunes and upbeat message ever since.
Set in racially segregated Baltimore of the early 1960's, it tells the story of 'pleasantly plump' (her words, not mine!) Tracy Turnblad, and her attempts to become a dancer on the 'Corny Collins Show' and meet the dashing local heartthrob Link Larkin. This wafer thin plot is given some depth by her desire to desegregate local television by allowing both black and white performers to dance together on the show. It is this message of integration and acceptance of a person, regardless of size, shape, race or creed which gives the show its warm heart and still has resonance in these increasingly intolerant times.
Leading the cast in the role of Edna Turnblad was Matt Rixon who is filling the large shoes (and floral dress) of Michael Ball, Harvey Fierstein, Mark Benton and John Travolta, who have previously played the part to great acclaim. Big in physique and even bigger in heart, Rixon manages to convey both the insecurity and devotion of Edna in a way that any parents in the audience will readily understand. Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy is a hugely engaging performance and was particularly good when swooning over Link before bursting into a high energy song and dance. The Turnblad family was completed by Graham MacDuff as husband and father Wilbur. The humour he brought to this role deserves special praise, given he was standing in the role this evening, and the close relationship with Rixon was especially evident as they ad-libbed and corpsed through their duet 'You're Timeless to Me', to the delight of the audience.
My undoubted favourites of the evening were Layton Williams (Seaweed) and Brenda Edwards (Motormouth Maybelle), with Williams showing his triple threat skills to enormous effect, and Edwards hitting every note with power and control and bringing the audience to their feet during and emotional rendering of 'I Know Where I've Been'.
I would reserve some minor criticism for the staging of the show, with some of the scenes being enacted on small sets close to the wings, which didn't allow the actors full rein to use all the stage and had the effect of inhibiting the broad nature of some of the characters, especially for Rixon as Edna. Similarly, filmed backdrops did not really add anything and felt like a wasted opportunity. The costumes (Takis) were beautifully garish and created a colourful spectacle, especially during the times all chorus were on stage.
Undoubtedly, however, it is both the songs and choreography that draw the audience back to this show time and time again, and it is easy to see why. There is a warmth with which 'Welcome to the 60s', 'Good Morning Baltimore' and 'You can't stop the Beat' are greeted in the theatre, with the crowd happily bopping and hand jiving to the band, some even wearing Edna style fancy dress in honour of the occasion. The decision to have the band situated on stage, resplendent in their white tuxedos was a good one and created a real concert atmosphere. In a similar vein, the hugely energetic choreography of Drew McOnie, and its flawless execution by a strong ensemble gave the dance sections enormous vitality further adding to the party.
So, if the more grand and sombre 'Miss Saigon', playing on the other side of Manchester isn't your thing, I would urge you to get down Quay Street and see this popcorn and bubble gum musical with a message. It is a confection enough to satisfy any sweet tooth this Easter.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 26th March 2018
North West End Rating: ★★★★