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Baltimore style hits Broadway in 'Hairspray'

NEW YORK - Hairspray should be - and probably will be - a hit, but not because of the accuracy with which it re-creates 1962 Baltimore. It will be a hit because it doesn't re-create it.

That's not to say that theatergoers from Bawlamer won't recognize what they see. The stage is filled with Formstone rowhouses fronted by lovingly polished marble steps. The girls' hairdos float about their heads like spun cones of cotton candy, and they are dressed in glorious, artificial colors: chlorinated water, maraschino cherry, lime Jell-O.

But it is not the world in which the show's creator, John Waters, lived when he was growing up. It is the world he wishes he had lived in. It is a world in which the fat girl wins the handsome hunk and gets elected prom queen. It is a world in which a red-blooded American man can put on a dress if he feels like it, and no one will think the worse of him. It is a world in which Jim Crow is no match for a bunch of kids who like to dance.

In other words, it is not reality. But the wistfulness that underlies Hairspray's frothiness is what makes this show so good.

Which is not to downplay the other things the musical has going for it: a knockout young cast, an exceptionally tuneful score, a set and costumes designed by two American masters. And of course, wigs.

Hairspray, of course, is based on Waters' 1988 cult film of the same name. But the musical's script, written by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, departs from - and improves upon - the original.

The plot is far more focused. The relationship between the tubby teen heroine, Tracy Turnblad, and heartthrob Link Larkin is developed for the first time. Arch villainess Velma von Tussle has a new role as a television producer, and she uses it to thwart poor Tracy (who yearns for a spot on a popular dance show) and advance the fortunes of her whiny daughter, Amber.

While the musical and movie share a theme of prejudice, in the stage version, Tracy's girth-enhanced mother, Edna, becomes an advocate for Ample Americans. The musical also eliminates scenes from the movie that were based on the real-life race riots in Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement Park; on stage, the riot occurs when the kids try to integrate a television dance show.

And perhaps it's just me, but the musical's book by Meehan and O'Donnell seems to have even more hilariously tasteless jokes about flatulence, food and what really goes on inside the girls' locker room than the movie script written by Waters.

My only major qualm is the depiction of the spunky little white girl as the savior of the oppressed black people. Why does it have to be Tracy who spearheads the protests outside The Corny Collins Show? Couldn't the idea of picketing have occurred to her black friends? The producers seem aware of this pitfall - they go out of their way to stress that the black kids taught Tracy how to dance - but don't step around it entirely.

Hairspray the movie had authentic period tunes. But Hairspray the musical has 17 original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that tickle your ears and melt in your mouth.

Not every lyric follows the strict rules of logic; for instance, it simply isn't true that 'time cannot take what comes free.' But overall, they have a refreshing honesty and charm, as when Tracy sings of her hometown:

Good morning, Baltimore!

There's the flasher who lives next door

And the drunk on his barroom stool.

They wish me luck on my way to school.

Based on classic '60s rock, the score reflects changing social mores and grows in complexity as its characters mature, and as the black and white cultures start to mingle. So, early on, we get a pop-infused girl trio singing the catchy "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now," and late in the second act we have the lovely, bluesy, "I Know Where I've Been."

In fact, that song is the emotional heart of the show.

Reportedly, the producers considered cutting it because they worried that a serious number about racism would be out of place in the light-as-aerosol world of Hairspray. They made the right decision not to, especially because Mary Bond Davis delivers it as a shiver-inducing triumphal anthem. The song is the grain of sand at the center of the pearl.

Among the cast, Marissa Jaret Winokur gives Tracy an adorably squeaky voice and a radiant sincerity born from an absolute lack of self-doubt, despite the constant jibes she endures about her weight.

As Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton, Kerry Butler is deliciously dim and raises gum-chewing to a high art form. As Seaweed, the black kid who teaches Tracy to dance, Corey Reynolds is a long and lanky pipe cleaner of a man. His feet go in one direction, his knees in another, and his elbows seem to enter a different dimension entirely. Inexplicably, all his parts remain attached.

Linda Hart plays Velma as a cross between Cruella de Vil and the Wicked Witch of the West. She has been given a vampy tango recalling her glory days as Miss Baltimore Crabs, and her rendition is deliciously warped.

But it is Harvey Fierstein who steals the show as Edna Turnblad, the part originated in the movie by the late, great Divine. Fierstein's famously gravelly voice sounds like a garbage disposal grinding up eggshells and coffee grounds, his comic timing is impeccable, and he imbues the role with maternal tenderness. When Edna grabs a prison matron by her shirt collar and warns: "Touch one hair on my daughter's head, and I'll be back to teach you a whole new meaning for 'split ends,'" we don't doubt that she means every word.

The set created by architect and theatrical newcomer David Rockwell is delightfully witty: At one point, a poster of The Dynamites comes alive, and they start dancing on the sidewalk. And while William Ivey Long's costumes have the requisite feather boas and spangles, they also contain astute, subtle touches. For instance, the hem of Edna's housedress is a good foot longer in the back than in the front, where it is lifted by her massive bosom. When she walks across the floor, she resembles a ship breasting the waves.

There may be no technical reason why Edna has to be played by a man - Fierstein is never unmasked - but there is a spiritual reason. The spirit of inclusiveness drives this show, and for Waters that means not just fat people and black people, but also drag queens. For that matter, the song's first number, "Good Morning, Baltimore," could be subtitled "The Ballad of John Waters," so trenchantly does it capture the filmmaker's desire not just to march to a different drummer, but to be applauded for it.

Good morning, Baltimore,

And some day when I take to the floor,

The world's gonna wake up and see

Baltimore and me.

Every time the curtain rises at the Neil Simon Theatre, John Waters' wish is coming true.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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