"Hairspray" arrives in Las Vegas with a spirit true to its original production, but with a newfound emphasis on its integration subplot. What was once a giddy tuner about a plump, teen realizing her dream of appearing on a TV dance show in 1962 Baltimore is now a primer in desegregation.
Slightly trimmed and spritzed to elicit a new bounce, “Hairspray” arrives in Las Vegas with a spirit true to its original production, but with a newfound emphasis on its integration subplot. What was once a giddy tuner about a plump, teen realizing her dream of appearing on a TV dance show in 1962 Baltimore is now a primer in desegregation. The shift in perception owes largely to the performances — a powerful African American cast dwarfing a non-infectious Tracy Turnblad — that may only grow more distinct in a few months when Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa leave the cast.
The deftly delivered comedy is still a load of fun. But it’s rather stunning how such a seemingly superficial tuner can have its tone adjusted by the levels of believability and the sharpness of perfs in roles that aren’t the constant center of attention.
The power of the original Tracy, Marissa Jaret Winokur, may have been underestimated: An amazing force on Broadway and the road company that played Los Angeles, when she was onstage the aud’s eyes had nowhere else to look, and her concerns were our concerns. She integrated every element and produced convincing relationships at home, at the TV studio and at school.
In Vegas, the seams are showing.
Katrina Rose Dideriksen apes Winokur’s mannerisms and, while convincing in places, never cements the bond between mother and daughter that made the film and original Broadway production work so well. Her kinetic movement is not only forced at times, there’s not a consistent sharpness in her footwork. Blessed with a powerful voice perfect for the role — slightly childish, booming when needed — an amped-up Dideriksen appears to be shouldering the responsibility to keep the action moving and get the audience back to the gaming tables promptly.
Fierstein and Latessa, as Tracy’s parents, Edna and Wilbur, have their own chemistry born on the Broadway stage. Fierstein in drag remains a hoot, his gravelly voice making even marginal jokes come to life, and Latessa is an understated charmer. Yet their intimate showstopping number — the ’30s-style ballad “(You’re) Timeless to Me” — is unnecessarily pumped up with some Vegas pizzazz in the arrangement and a newly glitzy backdrop. The tenderness of the performers needs the surroundings to complement the sentiment.
Besides Fierstein, Latessa and Dideriksen, cast contains eight performers from the road and Broadway editions. Best of that lot is Fran Jaye, who fuels Motormouth Maybelle — the record store owner who hosts “Negro day” at the Corny Collins dance show — with gospel instincts that draw on pain and joy in her two big numbers. Her acting is ordinary, her voice anything but.
The sensaysh moments, however, come from Terry Lavell (Seaweed), Maybelle’s tall and gangly teenage son and one of the “Negro day” stars. He beams sincerity as he falls for Tracy’s best friend, Penny (Chandra Lee Schwartz), and elegantly straddles the line between awkward and smooth operator. As a dancer, he lights up the stage.
Similarly, Schwartz brings a charming naivete to Penny, distinguishing her character from Tracy with aplomb. They are two misfits, but in Schwartz’s portrayal, drawn as if she spent a summer with a 14-year-old who didn’t get out much, Penny truly blossoms as she finds love and acceptance. Jaye, Lavell and Schwartz drive home the idea that “Hairspray” is a civil rights musical frosted with bits of Caucasian buffoonery. Equally charismatic is Austin Miller as Link, the teen dancer caught between a singing career and social activism.
“Hairspray” is not the Broadway experience that the commercially disappointing “Avenue Q” delivered in Vegas. “Hairspray,” with three numbers dropped and some bawdiness added, has a feeling of cut corners in the scenery and some imprecision in the group dances, an overriding hurriedness that only Fierstein ever works to calm.
The nine-piece band, too, starts off sluggish and never wholly captures the booming Phil Spector-pioneered girl-group sound. They fare much better in the soulful numbers and the teen-idol tunes.
“Good Morning Baltimore” is one of the great opening numbers in Broadway’s recent past, and there’s no reason for it not to wow auds from the get-go. But on opening night, not everyone answered that morning alarm promptly and vivaciously. Getting that number to pop will at least partially give the Luxor Theater crowds a taste of what they’d see on Broadway.