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'Hairspray' premiere tousles Broadway audience

NEW YORK - Welcome to Broadway, Hon.

Baltimore came to the Big Apple in a big way last night with the premiere of Hairspray, John Waters' affectionate, $10.5 million tribute to his hometown. Although other shows set in Charm City have played here (Kiss Me Kate comes to mind), none of them celebrates Bawlamer to the degree that Hairspray does.

As a result, the Baltimoreans in the audience (not to mention the show's creators, investors and cast) were wondering how well those two wildly different cultures would mix. The musical is even playing in a theater named after that quintessential New Yorker, Neil Simon.

"I never thought I was coming back to Baltimore," said the show's producer, Margo Lion, who grew up in Charm City. "But what a wonderful way to do it."

So the crowd filling the sidewalk on opening night was a curious mix of haute couture and haute froufrou. A very pregnant Sarah Jessica Parker, in a black baby-doll dress with spaghetti straps, hung on the arm of her husband, Matthew Broderick, not far from a tall blond woman in a sky-high 'do adorned with pink and white ribbons.

Miss USA, Shauntay Hinton, with her inaugural banner draped over a knit jersey-and-leather cocktail dress, disappeared into the theater shortly before former kidnap victim-revolutionary Patricia Hearst, who was elegantly dressed in a black cocktail dress and rhinestone shoes. (Shouldn't that be the other way around?)

Gawkers standing three-deep behind sawhorses across 52nd Street craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Ricki Lake (who starred as Hairspray's heroine, Tracy Turnblad, in Waters' 1988 film), actor Nathan Lane, broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer, and comedienne Rosie O'Donnell. Comic Martin Short was spotted playfully massaging the bouffant auburn beehive of Today show entertainment reporter Jill Rappaport. Short seemed to be looking for something hidden inside Rappaport's curls, perhaps a lost pet or spare change.

Reporters and camera crews, confined to a holding area on either side of the theater entrance like animals in a zoo, called out "Over here! Over here!" as Waters, Baltimore's self-proclaimed "Filth Elder," stepped out of a black limousine with his parents, John Sr. and Patricia Waters.

But Michael and Maxine Winokur, parents of the show's star, Marissa Jaret Winokur, raised relatively little fuss. Michael Winokur, resplendent in a red-and-black polka-dot bowtie and matching cummerbund, spoke about already having seen the show with his wife.

"After the fourth or fifth time, we discovered that there were other people besides Marissa on stage," he said.

And so they went into the theater, where they whistled, whooped and clapped to the musical numbers until the curtain brought an explosion of applause. Photographers rushed the stage for the prolonged curtain call, and bouquets of flowers rained down upon the happy cast members.

The show's creative team - Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan - took the stage, joined by director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and Lion and Waters. With tears in his eyes, Wittman bear-hugged star Harvey Fierstein.

When the roar eased a bit, Shaiman grabbed a microphone and told the buzzing crowd, "All the reaction to the show has not swollen our heads, but I can tell you this: It has swollen our hearts."

And theirs weren't the only ones. "You have to be crazy to think it's not going to get rave reviews," Rosie O'Donnell said.

Although extreme, the opening-night frenzy wasn't a radical departure from the interest the show has generated during several weeks of previews. Performances have been selling out; before Wednesday night's final preview, the line of people waiting for possible ticket returns was so long that leaving neighboring restaurants and hotels was difficult. One man softly asked passers-by, "Have any tickets to sell?" while keeping a wary eye out for police.

But for all the excitement, the sophisticated New York theatergoing audience seemed woefully unprepared for what it was about to see.

Rob and Tanya Bell of Hebron, Ky., couldn't imagine what Formstone might be. "Is that the place where kids go to serve a detention?" asked Tanya Bell, 34. (Hairspray's set includes Formstone rowhouses, and it raises an interesting philosophical question: If Formstone itself is fake, can there be any such thing as fake Formstone?)

Julie Lerner, 32, of New York and Robert Steiner, 37, of San Francisco thought a "hair-hopper" must be "someone who goes to different salons every time she gets a haircut," which is close, but still off the mark: It's the '60s term for a teen-age girl with big hair who goes to record hops.

Reasoning that perhaps the type of question was at fault with Lerner and Steiner, we switched to fill-in-the-blank. Complete the following famous quote by John Waters: "Come to Baltimore and be ... "

"Sweaty," Lerner said. It's hard to argue with her.

George and Gretchen Vlachos, two New Yorkers in their 60s, suggested: "Come to Baltimore and be transfixed." Waters would be, well, shocked.

Finally, a question so easy - given the name of this musical, given the oversized 'do on the marquee at the front of the theater and not to mention on the front of the Playbill - that no one could possibly get it wrong: Waters has said that Baltimore is the (fill-in-the-blank) capital of the world.

Vincent Forti was sure he knew the answer. "Baltimore is the truck-stop capital," he said brightly.

Hon, we have our work cut out for us.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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