Harvey Fierstein to return to musical

Apparently, you can stop the beat.

Six years after it elevated John Waters from underground bad-tastemeister to Broadway baby, the Tony-winning musical “Hairspray” is expected to shutter its Rialto production in January, with original star Harvey Fierstein poised to step back into the slingbacks of Edna Turnblad for an encore stint.

While terms of the closing were still in flux Friday, cast members were told Thursday night that the tuner would play its final performance at the Neil Simon Theater on Jan. 18. Reportedly no contracts have been signed, but Fierstein, who won a lead actor Tony for his colorful turn as the heavyweight Baltimore hausfrau, is slated to return to the role sometime in November.

If that plan pans out, it’s not inconceivable the show could receive a fresh shpritz to keep it on Broadway longer, the same way rallying fans prompted producers this year to postpone the planned closing date of “Rent” by several weeks.

Final decisions and an announcement regarding “Hairspray” are expected today.

In addition to Fierstein’s nod, the show also won Tonys for musical, book (Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan), score (Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman), direction (Jack O’Brien), lead actress (Marissa Jaret Winokur), featured actor (Dick Latessa) and costumes (William Ivey Long).

Opening to stellar reviews on Aug. 15, 2002, “Hairspray” quickly became a must-have ticket, recouping its $10.5 million investment in less than nine months. Broadway grosses are currently nudging $245 million.

A 2007 London transfer of the production also fared well, scoring a handful of Olivier awards and recouping its capitalization costs ($6.85 million) in 29 weeks. The show continues to play to solid business at the West End’s Shaftesbury Theater. However, North American touring results have been more erratic, and a sit-down run in Las Vegas that opened in 2006 was a commercial disappointment — like many other Broadway tuners that attempted to put down roots in Sin City.

The show was based on the 1988 Waters film about a chubby teenage integrationist in segregated 1960s Baltimore that starred Divine and Ricki Lake. Along with “The Producers,” “Hairspray” is one of few properties to transition from screen to stage to screen again. Released on July 20 last year, New Line’s film adaptation of the stage musical created fresh buzz for the show at a time when ticket sales were flagging.

Led by Margo Lion, the producing team also succeeded in boosting business by casting teen-friendly talent, often recruited from “American Idol” or pop groups like O-Town and Danity Kane.

While the long-running “Chicago” revival got an enduring adrenalin boost from the 2002 movie release and from a revolving door of celebrity replacements, “Hairspray” has seen limp box office that’s placed it on the Broadway endangered list for most of this year. Last week the show played to an average of 62% capacity.

Following on the heels of closing notices for “Legally Blonde,” “Xanadu” and the short-lived Off Broadway transfer “[title of show],” the “Hairspray” exit represents a sign that the Rialto’s traditionally lean months of September and October are being made even tougher this year by the drastic economic downturn.

Pundits are now speculating on the vulnerability of Tony winners “Spring Awakening” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” while Disney’s “Mary Poppins” also has seen biz slide since Labor Day.

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