Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Scott Wittman and
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,
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
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?