Seldom has the buzz over Broadway reached such hair-raising heights as that surrounding the new musical based on John Waters' 1988 film Hairspray.
Hairspray soundtrack on Sony Classical
Seldom has the buzz over Broadway reached such hair-raising heights as that surrounding the new musical based on John Waters' 1988 film Hairspray. But the hype that had critics and audiences wigging out months before the curtain rose, for once, is rapturously justified.
The two-and-a-half hour '60s-era romp is joyous and life-affirming, filled with raucous laughs and hook-happy music that embraces R&B, Motown, rock, girl groups, and bubble gum. But underneath its veneer of blithe beats and step-to-it dance steps is a seriously stylish production, dazzling in its larger-than-life staging, high-tech sets, and glittering costumes—not to mention some awfully high hair.
And of course, any vehicle that manages to bring the magnificent Harvey Fierstein back to the stage—in drag at that—is worth its weight in ozone.
Much of the credit for Hairspray's swift success goes to a bulls-eye lineup of Broadway veterans whose previous triumphs set the stage for Hairspray's firm hold. Director Jack O'Brien was nominated for a 2001 Tony Award for The Full Monty, co-bookwriter Thomas Meehan picked up the 2001 Tony for The Producers, and composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman wrote the music for the delightfully perverse, Academy Award-nominated South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
Set in Waters' beloved hometown of Baltimore (he served as a consultant), the play rolls out the tale of tubby teen Tracy Turnblad, who, against odds, becomes a regular on the trend-setting local TV dance party The Corny Collins Show, and promptly commands a charge to racially integrate the program.
Social consciousness aside, the story also revels and reels in via its universal emotional plot: The fat girl can be the most popular girl in class, and by God, she can also get the guy, Corny show heartthrob Link Larkin. Anyone who has ever suffered the role of underdog will share in her vindication.
On the side, Tracy's mother, Edna Turnblad, mastered in massive style and substance by Fierstein, confronts her own demons, battling a poor self image and regrets of doing others' laundry instead of fulfilling her dreams as a dress designer for abundant women. (Fierstein's Edna delivers the show's best line when wistfully explaining her girth: "I wandered beyond the boundaries of the largest McCall's pattern.")
Fierstein is clearly Hairspray's luminary, playing every moment copiously for maximum laughs—and grabbing them easily from an adoring audience. Amid the frivolity (and that trademark cough drop-begging voice), he/she also manages to bring a little lump to the throat in a loving, sentimental song-and-dance number, "Timeless To Me," with husband Wilbur Turnblad (played with vaudevillian verve by seasoned Broadway vet Dick Latessa). Obviously, the production team knew what a prize it had; the number is immediately reprised, garnering thunderous applause.
Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy has a tough job in Fierstein's shadow, but the 29-year-old New Yorker deftly balances bright-eyed flamboyance with purposeful defiance. In the show's feel-good opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore," Winokur exudes girlish virtue, but by the show's maddeningly catchy ensemble finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat" she carries her head—and a gargantuan wig—a little higher in her new role as town heroine, convincing all that size really doesn't matter.
At every turn, Hairspray offers ingenious surprises—a girl group poster in one scene suddenly comes to life in another as three soul sisters step out of the picture; shadowy figures lurk behind multi-level screens that turn sunny sets dark; and supporting players, one by one, show their stuff in a generous script that provides a spotlight for nearly every major role. Particularly notable is the serious, second-act gospel protest throwdown, "I Know Where I've Been" from record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle, played with panache by Mary Bond Davis. Scrumptious.
Hopefully, as the months wear on, Broadway's new baby will maintain its high-energy luster. Certainly, as it stands now, there's not a hair out of place.