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'Hairspray' lives up to its buzz

NEW YORK -- It could bring back the beehive.

"Hairspray," riding enough hype to float the QE2, roared into Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre Thursday and promptly confirmed the buzz was right on the beam.

The musical, based on filmmaker John Waters' subversive homage to his youth in early 1960s Baltimore, is a hoot -- a hilarious and affectionate salute to those days when hair styles were high, skirts were tight and teens danced to a rhythm and blues sound that was beginning to shake up mainstream pop music.

Liberation is the theme here: musical, racial and personal. At the center of this fight for freedom is young, more than pleasingly plump Tracy Turnblad. She lives to dance on "The Corny Collins Show," Baltimore's version of "American Bandstand." She also wants to integrate its all-white environs, and, along the way, be accepted for her full-figured self.

If that sounds preachy, it isn't. Not in the hands of director Jack O'Brien who has staged the show with an energy and zest that doesn't let down, right from "Good Morning Baltimore," the spirited can-do song that opens the show.

Collaboration is the essence of musical comedy, and everything seems to have come together in "Hairspray" with a remarkable cohesiveness.

Shall we start with the witty score, a marvelously pop-flavored concoction by composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman. These guys know a Ronette from a Shangri-La, not to mention how to give Lesley Gore and Sam Cooke their due. Yet the music is laced with an innate theatricality that will please even the most die-hard musical-theater fans. Was that a musical reference to "Gypsy" I heard in one of the songs?

But then "Hairspray" has an appealing self-confidence, the kind of brash enthusiasm that marked such popular musicals of the 1950s and early '60s as "Wonderful Town," "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees" and "Bye Bye Birdie."

It's a confidence that a lot of recent musicals, except "The Producers," have lacked. And "Hairspray" has something more. Heart. The show does what "Mamma Mia!" -- a manufactured celebration of ABBA songs from some two decades later -- wasn't able to pull off: tell a warm, funny and very humane story with characters you want to cheer on.

Book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have fleshed out Waters' screenplay, which, despite some brilliant bits of anarchic humor, never quite came together in the 1988 film. They have streamlined the tale, giving it a sharp show-business snap and peppering it with some very funny jokes.

The show's appealing leading lady, Marissa Jaret Winokur, is a powerhouse singer and an astonishing dancer, more than able to hold her own with the chorus kids choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps in perpetual motion.

The late Divine, the actor who seemingly specialized in comic transvestite roles, played Edna, Tracy's larger-than-life mother, in the movie. On stage, a padded Harvey Fierstein takes on the role, and, with his bass voice and padded bosom, makes it his own.

Fierstein is a classic clown, an actor who knows innately how to get laughs, but he reins in the campiness here, delivering a performance that never strays from his character's sweet bewilderment.

It's fun to watch Fierstein and Dick Latessa, as Edna's husband Wilbur, as they Fred-and-Ginger their way through a second-act showstopper called "Timeless to Me."

And it's not the only showstopper in the musical. Mary Bond Davis shakes the rafters with her "I Know Where I've Been," the inspirational, late second-act number, that galvanizes the kids, both white and black, to do the right thing.

Even the smaller roles have been impeccably cast: the villainesses (played by Linda Hart and Laura Bell Bundy); Tracy's goofy, good-natured best friend (Kerry Butler) and the heartthrob (Matthew Morrison), a Bobby Rydell look-alike who eventually falls for our heroine.

Rubber-faced Jackie Hoffman seems to be channeling the late, great Alice Pearce in a variety of parts, including a gym teacher, a prison matron and the black-fearing mother of Tracy's best friend.

"Hairspray" looks spiffy, too. Set designer David Rockwell has created a wonderful cartoon world that ranges from Baltimore row houses to a candy-colored television studio. William Ivey Long's costumes are equally eclectic -- from Supremes-style frocks to dime-store house dresses for the ample Fierstein. And Paul Huntley's extravagant wigs go on and on and on.

One could quibble and say one wished more of the lyrics were intelligible despite an overpowering sound system. But then, the words are printed in the booklet for the CD, which already is on sale in the lobby of the Neil Simon.

It's only August, and the 2002-2003 Broadway season has barely begun. Yet the year's biggest musical hit could already be here.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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