All you can ask of a work of art is that it help you see the world more profoundly when you leave the theater than you did when you came in. That's what "Hairspray" does. When I went to see the musical version of the 1988 John Waters movie, I thought the aerosol spray can was merely an ecological no-no. By the time I left, I understood that it made possible the last era of cultural exuberance America has known. Without the stuff, we could not have had teased hair and thus created the beehive 'dos that, like chrome tailfins, expressed the boundless, self-confident American optimism that skidded to a halt in late November 1963. The book, by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; the score, by Marc Shaiman, and the lyrics, by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, perfectly distill the giddiness of Waters' screenplay. In "Hairspray," Tracy Turnblad, a tubby Baltimore teenager, longs to dance on the local version of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand."
She also longs for one of its stars, the heartthrob Link. Tracy is infatuated with what her parents call "race music." In detention, she meets Seaweed, whose mother is Motormouth Maybelle, the hostess of Negro Day, a monthly feature on the dance show. Tracy's dream is to make every day Negro Day. The freewheeling dancing she learns from Seaweed helps her snag Link. Little by little, all Tracy's wishes come true. It seems a telling comment on how far we have come in 40 years that the racial subplot can be handled with so much humor rather than the sanctimony the topic generally inspires. By the second act, the story becomes a little thin, but the overall effect is good-natured fun. As Tracy, Marissa Jaret Winokur has the heft, the pipes and an enormously appealing stage presence. Her dancing may not be as special as the plot suggests, but she wins your heart as soon as the curtain rises, which matters more. As her mother, Edna, Harvey Fierstein is absolutely transcendent. That he squeezes every possible laugh out of the book is no surprise. But who knew there were so many colors in that foghorn voice? Who knew such a large, ungainly frame could move so gracefully across the stage? With this role, Fierstein places himself in the great line of Broadway divas. Think what unexpected nuances he could bring to the starring roles of "Hello, Dolly!” or "Call Me Madam."
Dick Latessa is expectedly marvelous as Tracy's father. Matthew Morrison is suitably groovy as Link. The one genuinely emotional moment in the show is Motormouth Maybelle's song, "I Know Where I've Been," which Mary Bond Davis sings with tremendous power and dignity. Corey Reynolds is dazzling as Seaweed. Kerry Butler has sparkle as Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton. Jackie Hoffman is delicious in three cameos - the cast has no weak links. David Rockwell's sets capture Baltimore and the garishness of the early '60s uncannily well. William Ivey Long's costumes add to the overall delirium. His confections for Fierstein are divine. Jerry Mitchell's dances convey the spirit of the times superbly. Director Jack O'Brien's staging is constantly inventive. "Hairspray" is a gas.
Yep, it's a hit - a great big fat gorgeous hit. For the second time in recent years, a new musical has roared into town and justified its advance glitz, glitter and hype.
The first, of course, was "The Producers" - and now, opening last night, there's "Hairspray."
From the moment an imperiously frumpy Harvey Fierstein appears, divine in the hausfrau role that was originally Divine's, you can sit back comfortably, knowing that something bizarrely dazzling is about to unfold.
Broadway has a new star in Marissa Jaret Winokur (never diet, honey) and a new hot composing team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
John Waters' 1988 sharp, fun movie, set in 1962 Baltimore, told the Cinderella fable of a cute little fat girl who manages to get her man, become a national poster girl for a hairspray and integrate the local TV station. Don't ask why, but it worked.
The movie was gentler than Waters' usual shock schlock, and the adept writers of the musical's book, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas ("The Producers") Meehan, have rendered it gentler still, making the musical irresistibly sweet and honest while retaining that touch of insider naughtiness.
From the skillfully schematic scenery by David Rockwell to the naughty authenticity of William Ivey Long's costumes, Jerry Mitchell's time-capsule-perfect choreography and the apiary-inspired hairdos of Paul Huntley, "Hairspray" is a triumph on all levels - one of those rare Broadway shows that clicks into place and space with classic abandon.
Shaiman's music is a marvel of reinvention. It reconstructs neolithic rock - pre-Beatles, from Bill Haley to early Beach Boys - taking in the Motown sound, a little gospel and paying homage to "American Bandstand," the whole rainbow jukebox of the period.
At times you think you've heard it before - the first number "Good Morning Baltimore" is oddly reminiscent of "Good Morning Starshine" from "Hair" - but then Shaiman takes off on a different riff, aided by Harold Wheeler's brilliant orchestrations.
Director Jack O'Brien has gotten wonderfully unaffected and gorgeously silly period performances from the exceptional cast. It's a joy to see actors (especially when some of them are fairly new to the game) going through what they sense is about to become a Broadway hit - they have a gleam behind their glitter.
Winokur did the stepping-out-a-youngster bit with bubbling aplomb. She has a lovely voice, a breathless, cuddly personality and the ability to twist a stage round her little finger.
And talking of voices, listen to Mary Bond Davis, a large lady with a larger voice, pinning your soul back as a pillar of Baltimore's black community, and the owner of a hangout record shop.
As the ugly sisters in this Cinderella myth (they're actually mother and daughter), Laura Bell Bundy and Linda Hart are vicious delights; a powerhouse named Corey Reynolds and a nicely perky Kerry Butler prove adorable as young black/white lovers, while Matthew Morrison, putting his best profile forward, scores as a wannabe rocker.
But the performance of the night is still Fierstein's.
Marvelously aided and abetted by the anxiously wry Dick Latessa as her adoring husband, Fierstein's Edna Turnblad breezes through the show like a galleon in full sail.
Unlike Divine's original, this not a drag performance as such. This Edna is totally feminine - and when she and Latessa stop the show with a big vaudeville duet, we see her through his eyes as a loving woman.
Just one question: When Tony time comes, is Fierstein to be nominated as Best Actress or Best Actor?
If life were everything it should be -- that is, if life were more like the endearing new musical called ''Hairspray'' that opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater -- your every waking thought would be footnoted by a chorus of backup singers of early 60's vintage. You know, the kind who always come up with helpful bons mots like ''ow-oot'' and ''bop-be-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba,'' whether the lead singer's heart is breaking or quaking.
Consider the effect that such encouragement has on one Tracy Turnblad of Baltimore, as she walks to school through a landscape that includes a frolicsome gutter rat, the flasher who lives next door and that familiar old derelict with his portable bar stool. Those happy backup voices in her head, engraved by endless spinnings of vinyl in her bedroom, guarantee that her view of the streets is more than rosy: it's hot pink and filled with promises of romance, stardom and the righting of social inequalities.
And, oh, by the way, when Tracy (embodied with trustworthy sincerity by Marissa Jaret Winokur) requires some extra assistance, when she needs to help her agoraphobic mom cut loose and live a little, for example, a Supremes-like trio in dazzling red steps out of a poster and onto the sidewalks to deliver the message personally. Among the advice offered: ''The future's got a million roads for you to choose/ But you'll walk a little taller in some high-heel shoes.''
And there you have the dewy essence of ''Hairspray,'' which is adapted from John Waters's 1988 movie about rock 'n' roll and race relations and features a captivatingly humane Harvey Fierstein (of ''Torch Song Trilogy'') in the role created by the drag goddess Divine. If you're not at all taken by the fantasy of the Supremes showing up to bestow a little Motown magic on your bedraggled, overworked mother, then you will probably be in the minority of theatergoers who will not find this musical irresistible. Otherwise, you won't need Ecstasy or any other of those fashionable drugs said to generate warm, fuzzy and benevolent feelings. So what if it's more than a little pushy in its social preaching? Stocked with canny, deliriously tuneful songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and directed by Jack O'Brien with a common touch that stops short of vulgarity, ''Hairspray'' is as sweet as a show can be without promoting tooth decay.
The buzz on ''Hairspray,'' which is centered on a television disc-jockey show in which white kids dance to black music, has been of the overblown variety that can wind up stinging its creators. It's been touted, for example, as the next ''Producers,'' the multi-Tony-winning Mel Brooks musical.
In truth, ''Hairspray'' doesn't have the same breathtaking confidence in its powers of invention. There are moments (rare ones) when it seems to lose its comic moorings to drift into repetition, and it definitely overdoes the self-help-style anthems of uplift.
But like ''The Producers,'' ''Hairspray'' succeeds in recreating the pleasures of the old-fashioned musical comedy without seeming old-fashioned. Think of it, if you insist on such nomenclature, as a post-postmodern musical. It's a work that incorporates elements of arch satire, kitsch and camp -- all those elements that ruled pop culture for the past several decades -- but without the long customary edges of jadedness and condescension.
Remember all that talk some months back about how the age of irony was over? That diagnosis turned out to be embarrassingly premature. But ''Hairspray'' offers winning evidence for the charms of an irony-free world, at least for a few hours.
Yes, it is inspired by a film by John Waters, a director whose name became a byword for midnight gross-out movie iconoclasm; yes, it does star a large man in drag (Mr. Fierstein); and yes the show's songs, its broad but witty book (by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) and its eye-tickling look (sets by David Rockwell, costumes by William Ivey Long) are chock full of knowing references to other musicals and pop artifacts.
Mr. Rockwell's delightful pop-up cartoon set, for example, makes allusions to that earlier teenage classic ''Bye Bye Birdie!''
Yet for all that, ''Hairspray'' has none of the wink-wink, isn't-this-a-hoot sensibility that often characterizes pastiche musicals. Mr. O'Brien has made sure that none of his ensemble members -- who include the freshest array of young singers and dancers since ''Rent'' -- keep even an inch of distance from their material.
They inhabit their popsicle-colored world without a whit of self-consciousness, which means that even when they're being subversive, they glow like Andy Hardy. When a young man named Seaweed, played by Corey Reynolds, flicks opens a switchblade in a moment of crisis, it's with a Boy Scout spirit of resourcefulness instead of street menace. Hip they may be, with their high ratted hair and light-reflecting clothes. But these kids are too warm to be cool.
The same friendly tone is carried out on every level, but its backbone comes from its music. Mr. Shaiman, the show's composer and its co-lyricist with Mr. Wittman, isn't sending up the music of the age of ''American Bandstand.'' Nor is he simply replicating it. What he's doing instead is taking the infectious hooks and rhythms from period pop and R & B and translating them into the big, bouncy sound that Broadway demands.
As Mr. Shaiman demonstrated in, of all things, the movie version of ''South Park,'' the raunchy cartoon show, he can infuse even the most unlikely projects with genuine Broadway effervescence. (Along with ''Moulin Rouge,'' ''South Park'' was the best movie musical in years.)
He's got the same wide-eyed infatuation with musical comedy, and its possibilities as a mood lifter, that Mel Brooks revealed in his score for ''The Producers.'' And while the savvy arrangements by Mr. Shaiman, with orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, nod happily to Motown, Elvis, Lesley Gore ballads and standards like ''Higher and Higher,'' the score's appeal isn't nostalgic. It's music that builds its own self-contained, improbably symmetrical world. ''You Can't Stop the Beat,'' its roof-raising finale number, might also be Mr. Shaiman's mantra.
The human bulwark of that world is Mr. Fierstein's Edna Turnblad, the mother of the peppy all-American firebrand Tracy (Ms. Winokur) and wife of a gag shop owner named Wilbur (Dick Latessa). There's something touchingly humble about Mr. Fierstein's performance, as there was about Divine's in the movie.
Big (Mr. Fierstein wears a fat suit), burly and tart-tongued as she sweats over the laundry she takes in, Edna is not just a cross-dressing sight gag. She's every forgotten housewife, recreated in monumental proportions and waiting for something to tap her hidden magnificence. Which is of course just what an old-fashioned musical is designed to do. And the engagingly modest Mr. Latessa is terrific in coaxing the romantic diva out of Mr. Fierstein, especially in a music-hall-style love duet that, for all its gentleness, brings down the house.
As the plus-size teenage Tracy, who becomes a television dancing queen and super-integrationist in one soulful leap, Ms. Winokur similarly and affectingly refrains from steamroller tactics. Her Tracy is less visibly assured, more wistful than Ricki Lake's was in the film version, and this gives the audience a firmer grasp of empathy. Although she sounds more like Brenda Lee than she does the frog-voiced Mr. Fierstein, Tracy is unmistakably her mother's daughter. That's a compliment.
The villainous role of Velma Von Tussle, the racist producer of the dance show, is probably a shade too strident, both as written and played by Linda Hart. On the flip side, there's Motormouth Maybelle, a strong and deeply with-it black record-shop owner, who is a bit too thick with stoical virtue and inspirational advice (although Mary Bond Davis sings the part wonderfully). And the often funny, rubber-faced Jackie Hoffman, in an assortment of parts, could probably bring the mugging down a notch.
But the show's teenage population unfailingly strikes the right balance between giddiness and earnestness. Matthew Morrision as Tracy's dream boy; Laura Bell Bundy as a whiny Doris Day look-alike and Tracy's archrival; Mr. Reynolds as Maybelle's enterprising son; and especially Kerry Butler as Tracy's dithery best friend -- they're all winners. And they bring precisely focused energy to Jerry Mitchell's choreography, which, like the score, turns period vocabulary into its own zingy language.
Corny Collins (Clarke Thorell), the Dick Clark-like host of his ''American Bandstand''-like show, calls his young dancers ''the sugar and spice-est, nicest kids in town.'' So maybe within their ranks there are a couple of no-goodniks who would judge people by their dress size or the color of their skin. Basically, Corny's description fits the kids and show like a latex glove.
For ''Hairspray'' is, above all, Nice. This may be regarded as faint praise in New York, capital of Type A personalities. But Nice, in this instance, doesn't mean bland. Think of it spelled out in neon, perhaps in letters of purple and fuchsia. That's the kind of Nice that ''Hairspray'' is selling. And it feels awfully good to pretend, for as long as the cast keeps singing, that the world really is that way.
The sets are garish. The lights are blinding. The costumes would give Austin Powers a headache. The hair ... well, the hair defies description. And taste.
Like the 1988 John Waters film on which it is based, the new Broadway musical Hairspray (three and a half stars out of four) is one big, loud, tacky party, sure to offend the neighbors — particularly those with no tolerance for racial humor, fat jokes or sexual innuendo.
Yet what's most refreshing about this show, which opened Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre, is its old-fashioned heart. In adapting Waters' tale about a plump, plucky teen's crusade to integrate a local TV dance show in 1962 Baltimore, playwrights Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman avoided the smug irony that pervades contemporary comedy. This is kitsch at its purest and least apologetic, and it's as impossible to shake off as the heroine's lacquered beehive 'do.
Granted, Hairspray's hold doesn't keep every element in place. The production suffers in comparison with Mel Brooks' musical translation of The Producers, which also features a text co-written by Meehan — one that is less hokey and more consistently funny. Jerry Mitchell's energetic choreography aims for the imaginative cuteness of Susan Stroman's work for Brooks but is neither as fanciful nor as polished.
In one important respect, Hairspray outshines The Producers. Shaiman has provided some of the most infectious melodies to grace an original Broadway show in years, taking his cues from the incisive craftsmanship that bridged musical comedy's golden era and the age of hippie bombast. Exhilarating tunes such as Good Morning Baltimore, Welcome to the '60s and Run and Tell That recapture the soulful melodrama of Motown and Phil Spector, and the cast delivers them dazzlingly.
The young woman who leads that cast, a voluptuous dynamo named Marissa Jaret Winokur, is destined to become Broadway's latest and least likely star ingenue. Winokur imbues plus-size protagonist Tracy Turnblad with a sirenlike voice and a blend of pep and vulnerability that will reduce even sentimentally challenged viewers to mush.
Harvey Fierstein, as Tracy's mom, sports divinely gaudy dresses and enough padding to fill a rubber room. It's a delightfully over-the-top performance, but Fierstein transcends camp by movingly conveying Edna Turnblad's devotion to her daughter and husband. As the latter, frail but feisty Dick Latessa is equally affectionate and adorable.
Mary Bond Davis delivers a star turn as Motormouth Maybelle, the rhyme-happy DJ for The Corny Collins Show, Tracy's vehicle to fame. Linda Hart and Laura Bell Bundy are duly shrill as the show's scheming, racist producer and her bratty daughter. Justin Timberlake look-alike Matthew Morrison reveals the decency beneath heartthrob Link Larkin's poster-boy unctuousness.
Kudos also to lighting, costume and scenic designers Kenneth Posner, William Ivey Long and David Rockwell, who unflinchingly funnel flash and frills. But for all its sticky trappings, a simple, solid core of warmth and goodwill is what gives Hairspray staying power.
Hey, Mr. Greenspan, maybe the answer to this darn economic slump isn't lower interest rates -- it's bigger hair!
OK, so the new musical "Hairspray" doesn't offer a cure for cancer, or the nose-diving Dow for that matter, but if the infectious jubilation currently spritzing from the stage of the Neil Simon Theater were bottled and sold across the country like, say, hairspray, consumer confidence would not be a problem. Certainly this sweet, infinitely spirited, bubblegum-flavored confection won't be lacking for buyers any time soon. Arriving in an aerosol fog of advance hype, it more than lives up to its promise.
The retro R&B score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is full of toe-tapping, tongue-in-cheek gems. Relative newcomer Marissa Jaret Winokur and a positively beatific Harvey Fierstein, in drag and very much at home center stage, are perfectly matched as a daughter-and-mother team fighting for the rights of people of color and the dignity of girls of girth. And the production has been lavishly festooned with endearingly goofy touches supplied by virtually everyone involved, from book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who have cooked up a deft blend of sweetness and silliness, to director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who keep pelvises twisting at a peppy pace throughout, to set designer David Rockwell and costume king William Ivey Long, happily camping out on the borderline of kitsch. In short, "Hairspray" should give Broadway just the booster shot it needs as it heads into the fall season after a bummer summer.
The show is, of course, based on the picture from the cult-film Bard of Baltimore, John Waters. But Waters' peculiar formula, a combination of intentional camp and presumably unintentional amateurishness, has been much improved upon by the show's creators, even as they merrily follow the outlines of the movie's teenage daydream plot. Winokur, a delightful ball of fire who sings in a determined nasal squeak, plays Tracy Turnblad, a big little girl in 1962 Baltimore who wants to be famous, and wants to be loved by the dreamy Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), heartthrob of "American Bandstand" clone "The Corny Collins Show," and wants to integrate both the show and -- Hey, you guys, why not? -- America, too. What she doesn't really want is to be slimmer.
Her comfortably big mama Edna (Fierstein) is afraid Tracy's feelings will get hurt on the road to social revolution, but soon enough she's doffing her housecoat and donning a Pucci print for the barricades, in one of the first act highlights, "Welcome to the '60s," a girl-group number that seems a playful nod to this musical's most obvious stylistic progenitor, "Little Shop of Horrors." ("Hairspray" makes amusing allusions, visual and textual, to various other Broadway tuners of the period, including "Bye, Bye Birdie," "Sweet Charity" and "Gypsy," and it's the rare show that's good enough to get away with such in-jokes.)
Their allies in the fight for freedom from the twin tyrannies of racism and size-ism grow to include Link, played with bright, appealing earnestness by Morrison; Motormouth Maybelle (Mary Bond Davis), the hostess of the once-a-month "Negro day" on the "Corny" show; Corny himself, personified with flawless period unction by Clarke Thorell; and Tracy's mousy friend Penny Pingleton (Kerry Butler). (Butler supplies one of the show's daffiest jokes when Penny falls in love with Maybelle's son Seaweed and suddenly seems to find her inner Mary J. Blige: Butler instantly switches her vocal style from generic Broadway to white-soul diva heading for the vocal stratosphere.) In lonely but determined opposition to all their rhythmic righteousness are Tracy's rival for Link, Amber Von Tussle (played to the snotty hilt by Laura Bell Bundy) and her maniacal mama Velma, whom Linda Hart imbues with a fiercely prim nastiness.
The characters are, of course, often as cartoonish as some of Rockwell's inventive sets, which slip and slide smoothly on and offstage against a clever backdrop that scales up a Lite Brite toy to majestic size. Cartoonish, too, is the zippy, dippy plot. But the flawless cast -- this is as perfectly in-tune a musical comedy ensemble as you'll find on Broadway -- never descends to mugging. They find a miraculous way of serving up the show's doses of corn with just the right sprinkling of facetiousness, and its goofy gags with the right sprinkling of sincerity. (Actually, the sole license to mug has been given to Jackie Hoffman, who uses it liberally and delightfully in a variety of small roles.)
Certainly, the show's message of racial harmony is a bit past its sell-by date, and it's when the book toils through this material that it begins to sag a bit in act two. (One might also wish the black characters were given more focus, or that Motormouth Maybelle's uplifting racial-pride song, "I Know Where I've Been," didn't feel so dutiful.) But the musical earns some indulgence by linking this scarcely ground-breaking salvo against prejudice to the one concerning our culture's ongoing fear of fat. There is indeed something radical and refreshing about putting a plus-sized girl and her double-plus-sized mama at the center of a big Broadway musical. That small but pointed moral gives a bit of ballast to the otherwise featherweight proceedings.
And at the heart of the show is the message that all the best musical comedies make a strong case for: That there's no moment of despair or irritation or inspiration or adoration that can't be improved upon by being set to songs that tease out a smile or set the toes twitching. Shaiman, known mostly for film scores, including the uproariously raunchy one for the "South Park" movie, has a marvelous gift for pop melodies and catchy choruses, as well as a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Motown song styles. The score sounds -- gloriously -- like something Holland-Dozier-Holland might have whipped up if Broadway had been musically integrated back in the early '60s. (For the rocking and rolling finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat," Shaiman pays tribute to Phil Spector with equal affection.) The lyrics by Wittman and Shaiman are skillful and funny and fresh -- occasionally very fresh: An Elvis-style tune crooned by Link, "It Takes Two," rhapsodizes the pleasures of coupledom thus: "Lancelot had Guinevere/Mrs. Claus has old St. Nick/Romeo had Juliet/And Liz, she has her Dick."
Book writers O'Donnell and Meehan liberally lace their book with bawdy humor, too -- perhaps a little more than is ideal for a show that's otherwise great for families. But you wouldn't want to miss the pleasure of hearing Fierstein growl out a double entendre in that unmistakable adenoidal foghorn of a voice. Although his Edna is not the dominant character in the show, Fierstein is gently ceded pride of place by the rest of the cast, including the amiably shticky Dick Latessa as her cavalier, and he takes the spotlight with the silken panache of a veteran star returning to the place where he belongs.
Wearing housecoats like evening gowns and evening gowns like housecoats (a final bravo for Long's brilliant parade of period costumes), Fierstein's deftly hilarious star turn intoxicates the audience from the moment he steps onstage. He's effortlessly adorable -- and so, for that matter, is the show.