A charmer in the city that matters

Good morning, Baltimore!

With its first song, a tribute to the rakish appeal of Charm City, a rousing national tour of Hairspray danced its way into the Mechanic Theatre last night.


Tours seldom live up to the shows that spawned them. That's especially true when, as in this case, the original was the heavyweight champ of Broadway last season, snaring eight Tony Awards. But in many ways this Hairspray is the equal of the behemoth in the Big Apple.

First, the musical's quirky sweetness remains intact. Audiences will leave feeling the same uplift, the same sense of cheerful possibility, the same notion that there is a place in this roomy world for all of us, that the Broadway version conveys.


Second, if there is justice in the theatrical world, the role of tubby teen Tracy Turnblad will make Carly Jibson a star. Ricki Lake became a household name after playing Tracy in the movie, and Marissa Jaret Winokur won a best-actress Tony when she created the stage role in New York. Jibson is as good as Lake and Winokur - if not better.

However, it must be said up front that Bruce Vilanch is surprisingly bland in the cross-dressing role of Edna Turnblad, so memorably portrayed in the movie by Divine and on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein. In New York, Fierstein is the undisputed star of Hairspray. On the national tour, the star is Jibson.

Other members of the cast are just fine: Charlotte Crossley (Motormouth Maybelle) has a voice as hard and bright as amber. Sandra DeNise is an agile and comic Penny Pingleton, while Terron Brooks (Seaweed) is so nimble he probably could dance on the head of a pin.

Hairspray, of course, was inspired by John Waters' cult film classic, an homage to 1960s Bawlamer and the Buddy Deane television dance program. The script by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan follows Tracy as she wins a coveted spot as a featured dancer on The Corny Collins Show, steals a handsome hunk away from the thin blond vixen, strikes a blow for adipose Americans, and becomes involved in the nascent civil rights movement. The score, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is a bouncy, hummable mix of girl groups, doo-wop and Motown.

Jibson's Tracy is very much her own invention. She sings in a lower range than Winokur, and her voice has a delightful ragged quality. If you didn't know better, you would swear that girls, too, have voices that crack when they reach puberty.

This Tracy is so full of the sunny self-confidence of a child who knows she is loved that she manages to convince the audience that heartthrob Link (the elegant and droll Austin Miller) might truly prefer her. From Fierstein's example, Jibson seems to have learned comic timing, how to throw herself full-throttle into every lickety-split change of a teen-angel's mood. But where did this 19-year-old, who is making her professional stage debut, get all that poise?

It's a quality that Vilanch could use more of. He's not bad as Edna, but he doesn't make much of an impression - a real handicap, considering that he's portraying a 300-pound laundress with a raunchy sense of humor. In the first act, he misses opportunities to develop his relationship with husband Wilbur and daughter Tracy. There are moments when he speeds through a joke when he should pause to appreciate it. Little changes could make a big difference.

To his credit, Vilanch doesn't try to imitate Fierstein's distinctive squawk, which is reminiscent of a flock of geese at feeding time. But the actor needs to project more of his own distinctive personality. (The particularly gaudy glasses given to this Edna by costume designer William Ivey Long are a nice touch; flashy eyewear is Vilanch's trademark and may help him feel more at home in the part.)


Even at his meekest, Fierstein is a formidable Edna; there are hints that Vilanch's performance as the laundress might be more foolish, if just as lovable. There were moments when this new Edna appeared in flashes - moments when Vilanch lets his mouth go slack-jawed, or lets his wagging tongue hang out of his mouth like a panting dog on a hot summer's day.

Granted, Vilanch is new in the role; his portrayal may deepen during the course of the tour. But for now, it's like a ghost seen in a mirror, who, just as she catches your eye, slowly fades from view.

Not that it's Hairspray's only ghost: There's the late great Divine, the transvestite gross-out queen. There's Deane himself, of the squeaky-clean image, who died in July from a stroke. Very different men, to be sure, but both an intrinsic part of Baltimore's history.

If the national tour of Hairspray rings true, it's because it evokes - and honors - them both.


Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza


When: 8 p.m. today and Friday; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; noon, 5 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $28-$73 (limited availability)

Information: Visit the box office from noon until 8 p.m.

Return engagement

It's official, hon. The national tour of Hairspray will return to Baltimore in fall 2005, when it will play a multi-week run at the Hippodrome Theatre. If you can't bear to wait that long, there's still a chance to pick up the rare returned ticket at the Mechanic Theatre box office, 25 Hopkins Plaza, before the touring production ends its inaugural run here on Sunday. The production is the first show in the Mechanic's history to sell out entirely to subscribers and groups. -- J. Wynn Rousuck