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.
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.