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.