Just from the way he answers the phone — “Proctology! Doctor Vilanch at your cervix” — you know Bruce Vilanch is going to go over big in Baltimore, the first city in the first national company tour of “Hairspray” that just hit the road.
Although he was brave enough to take on Harvey Fierstein’s role as the maternal Edna, the writer-comedian isn’t quite sure what to expect when he opens Sept. 17 in the famously eccentric hometown of John Waters, whose 1988 cult movie inspired the show.
But Vilanch wants it known that, whatever Baltimore has in store for the two weeks he’ll be playing the Mechanic Theater, he’s up for it.
A brass band parade? Mermaid floats? Fishermen in drag?
“There have been intimations of such things,” says Vilanch, who has been forewarned by Waters (whom he has designated “the Cal Ripken of culture in Baltimore”) that the historic harbor town has a lot of what the locals like to call “character.”
“I’ve heard it’s a wacky city,” he says, “and I gotta say that any town that celebrates crabs is a town to contend with.”
Waters also gave him a good piece of advice, Vilanch says, when the actor admitted to feeling nervous about stepping into Fierstein’s oversized dresses.
“When I told him how wonderful Harvey was, and the great things he did with his voice, John said: ‘Listen, Harvey did his Edna, and Divine did her Edna, so you just be your own Edna.’ ”
Advice from Harvey
And what was Fierstein’s advice on playing the queen-sized Baltimore housewife? “Harvey kept e-mailing me: ‘Where are the heels, already? Put the high heels on!’ That was his big directorial note — to get used to walking in heels so I don’t break my neck.”
On the subject of getting used to new experiences, Vilanch was surprised to discover he didn’t miss his trademark bushy beard, which everyone decided was just a bit much for Edna.
“I felt like Shirley Booth in ‘Hazel,’ discovering chins I never knew I had,” he said about the traumatic shearing (on “Live With Regis & Kelly”). He had started growing whiskers in 1971 as a cub reporter in Chicago who needed a three-day beard for a part in an Italian movie, “Rocco in Chicago,” that still hasn’t been released.
Along with that pic, Vilanch says he did “tons of summer stock in college” and was actually a child actor before that.
“A child actor,” he underlines, “never a child star — or I would have the rap sheet to prove it.”
So, in a way, he sees his current gig as a return to an early love. “I just thought it would be nice, at this point in my life, to have a second act.”