With The Lion King, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and now Hairspray touring the UK, which one do you choose? You may feel a bit spoilt for choice, until now. Following opening night at the Lowry, it is quite clear that Hairspray is without doubt, the best touring musical you will see this year and it's only February!
Newcomer Freya Sutton is a perfect Tracy Turnblad, the overweight teen who has such a zest for life, that she wins over anyone she comes into contact with. The character dreams dancing on The Corny Collins Show but with Velma Von Tussle (Lucy Benjamin) on producing duties - her daughter Amber (Gemma Sutton) is set to push her out of the limelight. It's 1962 and racial segregation is the norm but Tracy not only pursues TV fame, she longs for equality for all.
On paper, this may sound worthy and wholesome - with enough sugar to rot your teeth. But the joy of Hairspray is that contains sugar, spice, and all things nice, mixed with lashings of irony and a great villainess. But this is no panto and Mark Benton's Edna is closer in tone to Divine's interpretation in the non musical John Walters movie than that of Michael Ball in the stage version. Mark may not have Ball's vocal ability, but he more than makes up for it with his superb comic timing. Sure, his accent does lapse into Middlesborough every now and then - but he makes Edna his own and brings real heart and warmth to the role.
Freya Sutton is simply superb. It is hard to believe that this is her professional debut as she owns the stage. Her "Good Morning Baltimore" is energetic and a real show stopper.Paul Rider is brilliant as Wilbur - Edna's husband and Tracy's protective father - as he underplays beautifully. Lucy Benjamin will surprise many as she makes Velma Von Tussle her own - much more than a cartoon villain. You sense real disappointment in her face as she sings about the past/present in "Miss Baltimore Crabs."
Former X Factor finalist Marcus Collins makes a credible stage debut as Seaweed. He has the moves like Jagger and Jacko combined and has a great vocal tone, and he is rarely drowned out by the pros - sharing the stage with him. Sometimes his body language appears awkward but this is still a standout turn and not stunt casting, by any means.
Luke Striffler's Link Larkin, Josh Piterman as Corny Collins, and Lauren Hood's Penny Pingleton all bring comedy and great vocals to the party. As does Gabrielle Brooks as little Inez. Her mom - Motormouth Maybelle played by Sandra Marvin is sassy and sexy and delivers plenty of wow moments. This gifted actress/singer blows the roof off during "I Know Where I've Been."
The ensemble and swings keep the musical moving and not one of them puts a foot wrong. This is one talented bunch of people and they each bring far more than is on the page to this vibrant musical.
David Rockwell's set design is functional and adaptable with many hidden delights, including the huge can of Hairspray with a surprise inside. Jack O'Brien does not waste a single minute and his direction means the show rattles along at breakneck speed until the brilliant finale.
You might not be able to "Stop the Beat" but why would you? Hairspray remains a funny, frothy and feelgood musical and the hard working cast make it the perfect show to see on tour, as it has 'West End quality' running through it - like the words in a stick of rock. "Run and Tell That" to everyone you know.