NEW YORKYears from now, when "Hairspray" is being revived by your local high school again the strengths of this musical will have been made quite clear, in many types of productions. In other words: Its appeal extends beyond Harvey Fierstein in a dress, essaying the drag role originated by Divine, that of Edna Turnblad, laundry-laden doyenne of 1962 Baltimore.
Neil Simon Theatre, is a buoyant pop confection, tons of fun, sweetly subversive and generous in spirit a highly, yet near-perfectly, pitched theatricalization of John Waters' 1988 movie.
Undeniably, it offers Fierstein in a series of housefrocks and haute couture, plus SUV-scaled body padding, plus that hot-asphalt voice. But the story supporting Fierstein's padding isn't mere padding. It's the peppiest, happiest anti-segregation morality tale imaginable.
The Waters film (the first PG-rated outing from the auteur behind "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble") practically rolled over and moaned, "Make me a musical," so full is it of TV dance parties and yearning teens. To borrow a lyric from "Bye, Bye, Birdie," a major "Hairspray" influence: These kids gotta lotta livin' to do. And dancin' is a big part of livin'.
Marissa Jaret Winokur takes the Ricki Lake role of Tracy Turnblad, a sweet, large-ish teenage fan of "The Corny Collins Show," Baltimore's own TV dance party sponsored by Ultra-Clutch Hairspray. Tracy dreams of becoming a "council member" on the show, but a grander mission emerges from her goal of dance stardom and her love for the hunky Elvis clone, Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison): Integrate the show!
What's a laundry-laden mother to do? Edna and her novelty-shop owner husband, Wilbur (Dick Latessa, effortlessly charming) worry that their daughter is headed for heartache, as well as prison. Yet they're proud of her trailblazing.
"Hairspray" has the advantage of having an unusually centered heroine. "I have a good life," she says, just before Tracy's big luv duet with Link. "Great parents, my own room, stacks of 45's, three sweaters, plus a learner's permit good through August."
Cast pumps up show
She has also an infectious pastiche score supporting those dreams. Composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman, who wrote hilarious stuff for the "South Park" movie, was a swell choice for "Hairspray." Certainly you get a lot of the Alan Menken "Little Shop of Horrors" sound for your money here, heavy on the doo-wop, Motown, rhythm 'n blues and gospel. But it's extremely catchy. The zingiest lyrics (by Shaiman and Scott Wittman) locate this hyper-stylized Baltimore, with its Sputnik lighting fixtures, in something like reality, as did Waters' film. In "The Nicest Kids in Town," for example, Corny Collins (Clarke Thorell, who has the advantage of resembling Robert Cummings) puts over this couplet: "Nice white kids who like to lead the way/And once a month we have our Negro Day!"
Crucially, "Hairspray" finds more than mere traces of human feeling beneath all the hair. The book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan knows when to cut the kidding, as does director Jack O'Brien. The nostalgic soft-shoe Act 2 duet for Fierstein and Latessa, "You're Timeless to Me," is one of simplest, most pleasurable numbers Broadway's seen in years, delivered by two hilariously contrasting pros. And it's touching; it's not played just for laughs.
Tact isn't a trait easily associated with Waters, but Waters' film version of "Hairspray" had the tact to keep the fat-girl jokes to a minimum. The musical libretto offers approximately 15,000 such jokes per act. Other caveats: A couple of numbers ("Miss Baltimore Crabs," sung by the iron-lunged TV producer played by Linda Hart, and "Cooties," sung by Tracy's nemesis, Amber Von Tussle, played by Laura Bell Bundy) aren't really needed. The second-act momentum sputters a bit near the end. Some of the full-cast scenes a game of dodgeball, a police riot are rather routine.
But director O'Brien has been training for this project most of his career, and he has whipped up a most entertaining concoction. In musicals O'Brien has experimented with retro excess (in the "Damn Yankees" revival), and more recently, with "The Full Monty," he spearheaded a film-to-stage musicalization, to enjoyable if somewhat strained results. "Monty" never really felt as if its collaborators were on the same page. "Hairspray," by happy contrast, is that rare paradox: an organic synthetic.
Driven by simplicity
In its stagecraft "Hairspray" feels like an '80s show; it's modestly scaled and old-fashioned, visually driven by simple set pieces moved around by actors. Jerry Mitchell's choreography, sampling bits of the mashed potato and a host of other period maneuvers, propels the action as well. The book writers were correct in not turning the story into a monomaniacal vehicle for Tracy; "Hairspray" is a true ensemble affair, showcasing a top-flight ensemble led by Winokur. She has a first-rate best friend in Kerry Butler's deadpan Penny Pingleton, who discovers happiness in the arms of her "black white knight," Seaweed (Corey Reynolds, who dances up a storm).
Fierstein may look a little like Divine did in the film version, but he doesn't sound like him. It's remarkable how Fierstein in drag can slay an audience simply by shifting his voice to a register lower than whatever register it's in at the moment. (Also he gets to end one song with a quotation from "Gypsy," so how bad can life be?) Even if "Hairspray" weren't much, it'd still be an occasion for Fierstein's delightful yet shrewdly calibrated turn. He's doing precisely the right amount of too much. The whole show is.
"Hairspray," Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York City. $65-$100. 212-307-4100.