Producers are betting 10.5 million dollars that John Waters' 1988 film "Hairspray" can be transformed into a musical that will be Broadway's next big thing. Right now, it looks like a pretty good bet. Composer Marc Shaiman, along with lyricist Scott Wittman and book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have made the film's charming, oddball romp in 1960's nostalgia into a bright, warm-spirited, thoroughly delightful stage musical. This Seattle opening, prior to its arrival on Broadway in August, gives them a chance to iron out a few last wrinkles, but it should also fill them with confidence that that they've got a show that's a winner.
Everything about "Hairspray" is confident, joyous and professional, and director Jack O'Brien manages to keep it all feeling more innocent than calculated, smartly finished but still spontaneous. The cast is fresh, bright and talented, the music bubbly and clever, the book well-crafted and the choreography (Jerry Mitchell) is energetic and infectious. The costumes by William Ivey Long are alternately hilarious and gorgeous, and the scenery by David Rockwell neatly acknowledges film while still being pure stage. The result is a show that does everything well, and because it never tries to make its story more than it is, manages to be more than you hoped it would be.
As the big girl with big dreams of changing the world (or at least Baltimore) by getting on a local dance show, Marissa Jaret Winokur has almost the right stuff. She's sweet, sings with a big voice, moves well and has a great relationship with her mother. She's really very talented, but she lacks real star quality. The film launched the career of the unknown Ricki Lake, and all those things that made it clear that she was a young woman with something really special transferred to make Tracy Turnblad really special. Ms. Winokur seems like someone who would be a great friend, but not someone who could rally a city. Fortunately, the star quality in this show is hugely embodied by Harvey Fierstein as Tracy's mother, Edna Turnblad. That great bleat of a voice is perfect for the perpetually near-dignified housewife/fashion-designer/grande dame/kick-ass mother. Fierstein has such presence, and such perfect delivery that it sets a scale for everyone else. His performance really is the fulcrum on which the comedy/drama balance rests.
As Edna's husband, the joke shop owner Wilbur, Dick Latessa is marvelous. Their second act duet, "Timeless To Me" is schlocky and wonderful, earned sentiment that's truly endearing. I also love the first act number "It Takes Two", which firmly sets the key romance between Tracy and her teen idol, Link. That role is played very well by Matthew Morrison. The rival teen queen, Amber Von Tussle, is well drawn by Laura Bell Bundy, but I think her mother, played by Linda Hart, is a bit unfocused and overly cartoonish. The powerful Mary Bond Davis owns the stage when she's on as Motormouth Mabelle, especially in "I Know Where I've Been". Clarke Thorell counters that with a decent but decidedly white-bread role as Corny Collins, the Baltimore Dick Clarke.
While the heart of the show is the joy and expression of dancing (and Jerry Mitchell's choreography nails it time and time again), there is also the more serious background story of the last moments of unquestioned segregation, and what soon will be the much more frightening battles of the civil rights movement. In this show, however, it's only Tracy's determination to bring her black friends on the Corny Collins show, and not just on "Negro day" once a month. The show puts just the right weight on this important sub-plot, and never gets too heavy-handed or pious. Corey Reynolds does a nice job as the attractive, sexy black man that Penny Pingleton (Kerry Butler) finds herself attracted to, much to the horror, and envy, of her mother, Prudy Pingleton. Jackie Hoffman plays that role, as well as some other frighteningly female authority figures, with delicious comedy.
Not everything works perfectly. The first act seems to me about 15-20 minutes too long, but I really don't know what I would cut. The second act is decidedly slower getting going, but builds beautifully to the finale. The bottom line is that by the end of this show the audience was dazzled, and it received one of the most enthusiastic, most spontaneous standing ovations I've ever seen in Seattle. New York is a different town, but I think that this show, meticulously put together and refreshingly simple in its pleasure, can play anywhere. I'm so happy I had the chance to see it here, because I think it may be very hard to get tickets to it there.
Return to Home Page