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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Hairspray’
There is always room on Broadway for another big fat
— make that bouffant — musical comedy hit. Now "The Producers"
can shake hands with "Hairspray," the new and very chubby
kid on the block.
"Hairspray" is a no a no-brainer to be sure, and if it continues
a growing trend toward more frivolous musical theater no one seems
to be complaining. Who knows what shows would have been spawned had
"Marie Christine" (a musical version of "Medea") been
a hit? Where "Hairspray" differs and stands apart from company
like the gag-filled "The Producers," the merry but mechanical
force of "Mamma Mia," and the satiric bite of "Urinetown,"
is that it is irresistibly playful and cartoon-like.
Inspired by camp film director John Waters’ low-budget 1988 cult classic,
"Hairspray" has been miraculously transformed into a shiny,
exhilarating, and mostly hilarious musical for the whole family with
(perish the thought) family values. With more in common with the wholesome
"Bye Bye Birdie" than the gross and tasteless "Grease,"
"Hairspray" is sure to be a family and school favorite long
after its Broadway run ends, maybe 10 years from now. Unlike Mel Brooks’
notable participation in the writing of "The Producers," Waters’
absence from "Hairspray’s" creative team is probably a blessing.
Thomas Meehan, co-author of the new musical’s book, looks to become
its hero. He was also co-author of "The Producers."
Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, the musical is a bright and funny
valentine to our teen years, those days when adolescent rebellion
was being provoked by such major issues as first love, what to wear,
who to be seen with at the dance, and why can’t a chunky girl ever
get the hunky guy. It was a time when racial issues were just beginning
to surface in schools and in the predominantly white neighborhoods,
and when the music of one racial group was infiltrating and influencing
the music of another. It was also a time for girls to see how high
and wide they could tease their hair.
The joy of "Hairspray" is that it is not a tease, but a surprisingly
affecting and affectionate portrait of a young and sweet but overweight
teen, Tracy Turnblad (played with pluck and vivacity by Marissa Jaret
Winokur), who, although she starts off each day with a song ("Good
Morning, Baltimore"), also turns the tide of racism in her town.
For Winokur, who appeared in the most recent Broadway production of
"Grease," but is probably best known for her portrayal of
Janine in "American Beauty," her exuberantly endearing performance
as Tracy will be hard to top.
It’s a love-at-first-sight encounter for the unpopular
but sweet Tracy as she bumps into the pompadoured heartthrob Link
Larkin (Matthew Morrison) at auditions for an all-white TV teen dance
show. Although hosted by local station emcee Corny Collins (Clarke
Thorell), the TV show is being manipulated and kept racially segregated
by Velma (Linda Hart), its racist producer and the pushy mother of
snooty blonde teen queen Amber (Laura Bell Bundy). Those bigots better
get out of the way when Tracy’s parents — the mountainous Edna
Turnblat (played to gravel-voiced perfection by drag star Harvey Fierstein)
and Wilbur (Dick Latessa), her clownish but loving husband — take
No back seat is taken by super swiveling and gyrating black teen Seaweed
J. Stubbs (Corey Reynolds) and the stage commanding presence of Mary
Bond Davis, as Seaweed’s mother, a formidable and show-stopping black
record shop owner. Watching Tracy’s introverted girlfriend Penny Pingleton
(a riotously funny Kerry Butler) change, in the arms of Seaweed, from
a mouse to a sex kitten, is worth the price of admission.
Propelled by Jack O’Brien’s fast and smooth direction, Jerry Mitchell’s
spirited choreography, the show is no less fulfilled by the torrent
of catchy do-wop and rock styled music provided by collaborators Mark
Shamain (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics). That the musical’s
book writers Meehan and Mark O’Donnell have stuffed into the joke-strewn
mix a generous amount of heady but heartening social issues and concerns
is no mean feat. With everyone cavorting in David Rockwell’s neon-lit
comic book settings and dressed to the outrageous nines by William
Ivey Long, "Hairspray" lifts its audience higher than any
beehive could. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
York, 212-307-4100. $40 to $100.
September 11 note: To play or not to play? It’s a hard
call and different groups have decided different ways to honor the
one-year anniversary of the New York terroritst attacks. Shows that
are taking the show-must-go-on approach include "The Producers,"
"Hairspray," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "I’m
Not Rappaport," "Metamorphoses," "Proof," "The
Boys from Syracuse," "The Graduate," and "The Tale
of the Allergist’s Wife."
Those keeping the house dark on September 11 include "The Lion
King," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aida," "The
Phantom of the Opera," "Chicago," "Les Miserables,"
"Cabaret," "Mamma Mia!," "42nd Street," "Frankie
and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune," "Into the Woods," "Oklahoma!,"
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