'Hairspray' will hold for years on Broadway

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tracy Turnblad, the unlikely leading lady of "Hairspray," which is the next must-have ticket on Broadway, wants something more than a prince. She's an American teenage version of Cinderella, ca. 1960, so it's fame she's after, not to mention fortune enough to pay for fluffy-skirted dancing dresses with beehive-teased hairdos to match.

The fame in question is a place among the high school kings and queens chosen to dance on afternoon television's "The Corny Collins Show," modeled after Dick Clark's "American Bandstand."

But Tracy doesn't look the part of a TV icon. She is a rotund, short person, even though in the person of Marissa Jaret Winokur she can sing and dance with the best of them. Winokur's a name to remember because her performance is likely to be the lodestar for the Tony Award next spring. From the top, she establishes her center-stage presence when she wakes up on her vertically hung bed to belt out "Good Morning, Baltimore," an anthem to the city where the show takes place.

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Tracy's saga also differs from the Cinderella model because she has no need of a fairy godmother. She has Edna, her own mother, telling her "together we'll claw your way to the top."

Mama, as played by the formidable Harvey Fierstein, in skewed and outrageous homage to Mama Rose of "Gypsy," is certain to be the talk of the town. And like her daughter, he/she's not exactly a sylphlike image but more of a battleship, wrapped in plus-sized housedresses.

So welcome to "Hairspray," and if you feel frustrated that you can't snag admission to "The Producers," add this one to the list of hot tickets.

This musical spoof of every stage and film depiction of our national rites of passage – the high school years, when kids fall in love, fight, and make up – are set to the constant beat of the songs of the era. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (score and lyrics), and Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book), have based their work on the 1988 film by John Waters, who served as consultant to the project, with Jack O'Brien as director and Jerry Mitchell as choreographer.

In times past, Hollywood raided the theater for material. But the road has gone the opposite direction, given the gold-plated hit of "The Producers." This team is well up to the challenge: Mr. Meehan collaborated with Mel Brooks on "The Producers"; Messrs. O'Brien and Mitchell staged "The Full Monty," taken from the British movie.

With a superb cast in play, the creators of "Hairspray" have mounted a hilarious evening filled with dancing that's accompanied by a score already released on a show album. The sold-out preview run in Seattle this summer created enough buzz to produce an album before last night's Broadway opening at the Neil Simon Theatre (not the usual practice.)

Mitchell has done a remarkable job of varying the choreography, despite the repetitive sounds of rock 'n' roll, alternating with the rhythm-and-blues music of the period. One delicious number brings back a trio, reminiscent of The Supremes, preening their way in unison around the stage. And that's not to mention the giggles evoked by the ever-moving hairspray cans that punctuate the songs.

Part of the fun lies in the recognition of familiar talismans from the history of musical theater: the scaffolding backdrop where the teens strut their stuff from "Bye-Bye Birdie," the transformation of the mousy girl to a siren à la "Grease," and the outline of the matron of the women's prison, lifted from "Chicago."

Yet the most endearing qualities of "Hairspray" go beyond the gags. Tracy is not a passive princess waiting for some fairy dust to drop on her head. She's endowed with the true grit of an American woman of ideals who makes things happen. She not only wants her own success, but is determined to right a wrong, in this case to integrate her black friends into the cast of "The Corny Collins Show."

If the shift in tone at the middle of Act II seems abrupt, at least there's Mary Bond Davis to deliver the song that rallies the cause, along with a rousing finale in which a rainbow band of Baltimore teenagers dance together for the first time on national TV.

The other compelling sweetness is the emphasis on family values of love and loyalty in the relationship between Tracy and her parents, Edna and Wilbur. Dick Latessa gives a warm-hearted portrayal that helps make the sentiments believable.

The hush in the audience, which has whooped its delight throughout the evening, is one of appreciation at Edna and Wilbur's renewal of vows for "Timeless To Me" in the change-of-pace foxtrot in the second act.

These universal feelings, layered under the snappy lines and lacquered hair-dos, will keep "Hairspray" on the boards for years to come as an achievement for the theatrical record books.

• 'Hairspray' opened on Broadway yesterday at the Neil Simon Theatre. For tickets, go to www.ticketmaster.com or call 212-307-4100.

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