Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Mark Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the film written and directed by John Waters
Starring Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Neil Simon Theatre / 250 West 52nd Street / (212) 307-4100

Reviewed by David Spencer

Well, I sure won’t be the one to say nay of "Hairspray"–the musical version of the cult John Waters film–the audience loves it, it’s a great deal of fun, consummate skill and showmanship inform every aspect of it…

But I also won’t be the one to tell you that it’s the second coming (that is, heir to "The Producers") in terms of being as spectacular as the hype insists. Not that it isn’t fine as an adaptation of this particular source material…I’m saying only that "The Producers" is a brilliant riff on a comic masterpiece; "Hairspray", by comparison, is a clever riff on a slight, but iconic bit of camp nostalgia. (A musical theatre colleague of mind commented, "I like it. It’s ‘Grease,’ but it’s better than ‘Grease.’ Which is arguably not terribly far from the truth.) And if this sounds like grudging or faint praise…guess what, I’m feeling quite generous of spirit about "Hairspray"–it delivers virtually everything it promises, and only an oblivious (or stubborn) fool would refuse to give it high marks for that. But it’s a promise of nothing but joy in the service of a goofy story and a tacit, but clearly and outrageously, gay perspective on pop culture circa 1962. If the ultimate manifestation of that is worth inflated Broadway ticket prices to you, then by God, kids, wait on that long line and have a blast.

But if you’re not so sure…listen to the album (already released), check the press photos, read what follows, and know what you’re getting into before you plonk down your dough. And what you’re getting into is this:

"Hairspray" tells the story of overweight but adorable teen Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur), who dreams of being famous. It’s a modest fame, as notoriety goes, as her immediate goal is to be a featured dancer on the Corny Collins teevee show (1962 Baltimore’s answer to Dick Clark, played by Clarke Thorell). Despite the show’s snooty producer, herself once a local teen idol (Linda Hart) and the vacuous, self-obsessed daughter she is grooming to take her place (Laura Bell Bundy), Tracy does make it to on-air celebrity–as well, snaring the local rockin’ dreamboat Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison) for her boyfriend. As if this isn’t enough to inflame her rivals, Tracy is all for (gasp) integrating the Corny Collins Show. So that black artists and dancers appear not just on Negro Day–but every day! Tracy’s parents, laundrette Edna (Harvey Fierstein, in the drag role created in the film by Divine) and joke shop owner Wilbur (Dick Latessa) could not be more proud and supportive…but the odds against Tracy keep mounting…

The look of the show (scenery: David Rockwell, costumes: William Ivey Long) is all ’60s kitsch, pastels and flats, and absurd bouffant wigs (Paul Huntley). The choreography (Jerry Mitchell) is of the infectious, rouse-the-house kind; and the playing style is Out There under the eagle-eye direction of Jack O’Brien, who manages to keep the high camp from overwhelming the needed dollop of core humanity. Not an easy balance, and he makes it seem effortless.

As for the writing…

Well, here we get to the crux of the matter. I saw the film–for the first time, believe it or not–on the afternoon before I attended the musical. I could certainly understand its impact on pop culture, and acknowledge its charms (though I found it far from a comic masterpiece, merely camp fluff that never lost sight of its objective)…and I found it surprisingly slight as a property for musical adaptation. The librettists really have their work cut out for them, I thought, expanding upon this. For all "this" seemed to be was a continuity of character sketches linking a lot of dance numbers.

Lo and behold, the librettists (Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) have done very little to expand upon the raw material, in terms of re-inventing the storyline and renovating the plot. Rather, what they’ve done is to flesh out scenes that were sketchy in the film, go deeper into moments that were once passing beats, sometimes attack the same story point with an emphasis on another character in the scene, letting a new angle bring out a moment more worthy of musicalization and lengthier treatment. A few things have been moved around for a more direct theatrical line; and compacted to avoid repetition (the former beauty queen mom and the bigoted television producer, as they perform similar functions, have been consolidated into the single character Linda Hart now plays). And the integration issue is accorded a modicum of camp-free sincerity–though it never drops the comic premise that, in all things, black is hipper than white (Mary Bond Davis as a popular singer and Corey Reynolds as her teenage son embody the philosophy); and a jailhouse sequence has been added to up the stakes.

But the book never seeks to re-invent the tone of the screenplay, or imbue it with added depth…merely (or perhaps not so merely) to create its sustaining theatrical equivalent.

The music by Marc Shaiman is great ’60s pastiche fun, but for all its delightful expertise, it rarely if at all manages to transcend the styles to create its own unique composer’s signature (Mr. Shaiman’s contribution to the film "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" is far more savvy and memorable in that regard). And the lyrics by him and Scott Wittman are likewise entertainingly right, without being exceptional.

As a piece of material, the musical "Hairspray" is consistently very, very good–and consistently shy of great.

Except for one moment…the moment when Tracy’s parents have their softshoe showbiz moment, a number called "Timeless to Me"; played for laughs, but with the mutual affection and romantic attraction played, in all senses, straight. Fierstein as mom croaking out his lyrics with his distinctive rasp (yet remarkably in tune for all his limited range and instrument) and Dick Latessa as dad croonin’ smooth ("His voice is 20 years younger than he is!" remarked my companion accurately, and I’d even add that it’s a stronger and sweeter voice than he had in the ’70s when "Philemon" first brought him to prominence, in his forties)…it’s an already legendary moment that well earns its encore verses.

Would that it were all like that. But then, given the source material, "that" may not have been possible. "Hairspray" may in fact be as good as it can possibly have been…

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