Review: ‘Hairspray’

There's plenty of spritz left in the can at "Hairspray," the endlessly jubilant musical about a Baltimore teen who fights bigotry with her big hair and bigger heart. The Neil Simon will need new carpeting soon, so insistently do toes continue to tap along with this bouncing beach ball of a musical.

There’s plenty of spritz left in the can at “Hairspray,” the endlessly jubilant musical about a Baltimore teen who fights bigotry with her big hair and bigger heart. The show is approaching its second anniversary on Broadway, with new performers in most of the principal roles. It probably would be impossible to re-create the magical symbiosis of the show’s entirely adorable original cast — an ensemble so perfectly attuned to their roles and each other that they swept the audience into an intoxicating communal embrace. But the material itself seems to contain some sort of mood-boosting elixir, and the new cast delivers the show’s high spirits with infectious exuberance. The Neil Simon will need new carpeting soon, so insistently do toes continue to tap along with this bouncing beach ball of a musical.

Carly Jibson is dizzyingly hyperactive as the zaftig but zesty Tracy Turnblad, who refuses to let a few extra pounds get in the way of her dream career as a sock-hop dynamo. This new Tracy has the brisk determination of a baby bulldozer, winning the heart of budding heartthrob Link Larkin less through goodness and warmth than firm force of will.

Jibson’s dancing is wild and idiosyncratic — at times she looks like she might spin right offstage from a sheer surfeit of spunkiness — but her singing is supple and expressive. She can blast out that bright nasal bleat that is Tracy’s signature sound, but also adds sweet soulful flourishes to her big ballads.

Richard H. Blake, the new Link, is suitably dreamy and swivel-hipped as the object of Tracy’s obsession; “I Can Hear the Bells,” the fantasy ballet in which Tracy seduces and weds Link to the sound of rhythmic chiming, is performed with winking brio and remains a comic highlight of the first act.

Tracy and Link’s allies in their plan to integrate the local televised dance hop, “The Corny Collins Show,” also are newcomers: Jennifer Gambatese is a softer-edged but still adorably dim Penny Pingleton, who is transformed instantly from gawky hanger-on to white soul sister under the seductive tutelage of Seaweed J. Stubbs, danced with exciting buoyancy by Chester Gregory II — who has a pleasingly natural comic flair, too. Newcomers Barbara Walsh and Tracy Jai Edwards are vividly hissable as the conniving Velma and Amber Von Tussle.

But there are some old friends onstage, too: Dick Latessa remains a paragon of easygoing charm as Tracy’s pop, Wibur; Mary Bond Davis is singing with perhaps even greater glossy richness as Motormouth Maybelle; and the irrepressible Jackie Hoffman continues to season the proceedings with her hilariously loopy shtick in a trio of small roles.

And yet the new-formula “Hairspray” isn’t an exact replica of the first, and there’s one key respect in which, to continue the metaphor, the hold isn’t quite as firm. Michael McKean, best known for his years as Lenny on “Laverne and Shirley” and more recent turns in “This Is Spinal Tap” and Christopher Guest movies, bravely undertakes the role of Edna Turnblad, immortalized on film by Divine and onstage by Harvey Fierstein.

In his Broadway debut, McKean gives a persuasive, effective performance, but it simply doesn’t have the heft — or the heart — of Fierstein’s. Despite ample padding, he somehow cuts a smaller figure in Edna’s voluminous muu-muus. He doesn’t always land the laughs with the sly panache that was second nature to Fierstein, or embody the role with the amusing sense of benevolent entitlement that Fierstein did. Who could?

The show’s producers and creative team made clear that they weren’t looking for drag queens to take over the role. But call them what you will, Divine and Fierstein were both, to put it another way, very much at home in a muu-muu.

Good drag performing isn’t just a matter of putting a fine actor in a dress; it’s a specialized art unto itself. McKean is certainly a versatile comic, but missing from his performance is that mildly infatuated delight in the trappings of faux-femininity that is a key ingredient in all great drag performances.

But even this mild disappointment doesn’t prove to be a serious, er, drag on the evening. “Hairspray” is an uncommonly well put-together musical, with David Rockewell’s pop-up book sets and William Ivey Long’s colorful costumes providing the eye-pleasing gloss for director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s endlessly locomotive production. Providing the gas is the delectable R&B-based score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, every bit as intoxicating as it was the first time around.

The musical is a jukebox with no B-sides: Push any button and a little bit of joy comes spinning out.


Neil Simon Theater; 1,428 seats; $100 top
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