Hairspray

Review by Adam Blair

Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters
Directed by Jack O'Brien; Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
With Marissa Jaret Winokur, Laura Bell Bundy, Mary Bond Davis, Kerry Butler, Linda Hart, Matthew Morrison, Corey Reynolds, Clarke Thorell, Danelle Eugenia Wilson, Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein
At the Neil Simon Theatre, New York City

John Waters' 1988 movie Hairspray was a delightful comedy built from a simple recipe: Mix together "teen" movies and "message" movies, neither of which are that funny in and of themselves, and wash in Waters' manic, let's-offend-everyone-before-the-grownups-come-home sensibility. Sprinkle with oddball talent (Ricki Lake as plump teen dancing sensation Tracy Turnblad, the late Divine as Tracy's mom Edna) and brew in the atmosphere of 1962 Baltimore, in all its post-Eisenhower, pre-Beatles, about-to-be-deflowered innocence.

The hit Broadway musical Hairspray is delightful too, although the pleasures it provides are different in many ways from the movie (and rightly so). Hairspray the movie was, at the time, the most conventional film Waters had ever done (this is a guy whose early films were Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos and the slightly tamer Polyester, with its Odorama-style scratch-and-sniff card). Part of the pleasant surprise of Hairspray the movie was that the Queen of Bad Taste could make a movie that you could recommend to - well, not your mom, but definitely your slightly hip aunt.

Hairspray the Broadway musical looks fresh and plays strongly for different reasons: the rather sad state of Broadway musicals. Which is not to say that it doesn't have virtues of its own - more that they stand out in sharp relief compared with many of the alternatives (revivals, pseudo-revivals like Thoroughly Modern Millie, overproduced Disney spectacles and more revivals).

The score - especially the clever lyrics - captures the story's era, when doo-wop was getting ready to morph into Motown. The songs move the show along swiftly and smartly. Composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman hasn't yet learned how to tap his gift for melody in ways that make individual songs more memorable, but while you're watching Jack O'Brien's clever direction and Jerry Mitchell's energetic, imaginative choreography, you don't mind that the songs tend to sound similar. Consumer advice: see the show, don't buy the cast album.

Taking full advantage of the opportunities that are offered by the score is Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad. From her opening paean to Waters' home town, "Good Morning Baltimore," through her lovestruck ode to hunky Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), "I Can Hear the Bells," she exudes charm and energy to spare. If her dancing has more energy than finesse, that fits with the bigger-is-better ethos of the musical vs. the movie.

Other standouts include Mary Bond Davis as Motormouth Maybelle, who brings the combination of real pain and determination that "I Know Where I've Been" - with its nods to gospel and soul - needs. Laura Bell Bundy and Linda Hart, as daughter-and-mother meanies Amber and Velma Von Tussle, are both enjoyably hissable. Jackie Hoffman, in a variety of smaller parts ranging from uptight mom to leering P.E. teacher to sadistic prison matron, captures the true essence of Waters' zaniness.

But the true show-stealers are Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein as Tracy's parents. Fierstein firmly but gracefully creates his own character as Edna Turnblad, blossoming from stay-at-home frump to plus-size fabulosity (cheers for William Ivey Long's glorious costumes, designed as if the stage were a brand-new color television set and he wanted to show off every possibility in the palette).

Fierstein and Latessa bring down the house with their second-act love duet and dance, "You're Timeless to Me." In fact, for all the outsized humor and campiness of Hairspray the musical, it's surprisingly effective at capturing bits of real feeling among its dreaming, scheming characters. Imagine that: real feeling and Broadway professionalism, in the same theater at the same time. I have only one question: will Fierstein be nominated for Best Actor in a Musical, or Best Actress?

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