Hairspray Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Scenery designed by David Rockwell. Costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Light designed by Kenneth Posner. Sound designed by Steve C. Kennedy. Wigs and hair designed by Paul Huntley. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Based upon the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters. Starring Carly Jibson, Michael McKean. Also starring Richard H. Blake, Mary Bond Davis, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Tracy Jai Edwards, Jennifer Gambatese, Chester Gregory II, Jackie Hoffman, Aja Maria, Joel Vig, Barbara Walsh, and Dick Latessa. With Tracee Beazer, Eric L. Christian, J.P. Dougherty, Shannon During, Jennie Ford, Leslie Goddard, Hollie Howard, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Michelle Kittrell, Leslie Kritzer, Serge Kushnier, Abdul Latif, Michael Longoria, John Jeffrey Martin, Rusty Mowery, Rashad Naylor, Nicole Powell, Terita R. Redd, Judine Richard, Chandra Lee Schwartz, Peter Matthew Smith, Todd Michael Smith, Shayna Steele.
Replacement casts are a fact of life for long-running Broadway shows, and finding performers capable of fitting into roles created by exquisite talents and personalities can't be easy. The Producers is the most public currently running example of this, but one shouldn't expect all shows to have it quite so difficult. Shouldn't, for example, the 2003 Tony-winning hit Hairspray have it much easier?
After all, can't any number of young, energetic actresses easily slide into the role of dancing civil-rights rabble-rouser Tracy Turnblad? And aren't there enough strong comic character actors in New York to acceptably replace her portly mother Edna? After seeing the new cast of Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre, it seems 1962 Baltimore is almost as hard to populate as 1959 Broadway.
Hairspray, like The Producers, was originally a film conceived and directed by someone with a heavily over-the-top sensibility - in this case, John Waters. Performers in both shows need to be able to match the antic energy the creators instilled in the material; simply meeting the vocal and physical demands of the roles isn't enough. When what you see onstage are more "types" than characters, everyone has to work that much harder to make them believable as people.
The original cast of Hairspray, including its Tony-winning stars Marissa Jaret Winokur (Tracy) and Harvey Fierstein (Edna), made that look easy. When they lifted their voices in song or lifted their feet in dance, the wackiness of Waters' world (as interpreted for the stage by librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and director Jack O'Brien), always seemed natural.
It becomes evident very early on that that's likely to not be the case for the replacement cast. While a talented group of actors, singers, and dancers, there's not much room for originality in the way they look, sound, or behave. They must so tightly into what's already been established that very little in terms of character or behavior now seems to derive organically from the performers' personalities.
For Carly Jibson it's perhaps not as much of an impediment - after all, she originated Tracy on tour, and is able to use some of her own inventions to drive the character now. She comes across as younger and more visceral than either Winokur or her first replacement, Kathy Brier, though this sometimes translates to a lack of polish that gives her an occasionally sloppier look. (Her dancing, for example, sometimes seems almost out of control.) But Jibson is credible, if never exciting, as the overweight teen who plans to integrate Baltimore starting with the Corny Collins dance TV show.
A number of the major supporting performers have even more trouble finding that elusive spark of heightened unreality needed to make Hairspray play. These include Jennifer Gambatese as Tracy's best friend Penny, Richard H. Blake as teen heartthrob (and Tracy's eventual beau) Link, and even Corny Collins himself (Jonathan Dokuchitz) - they all sing, act, and dance well, but don't bear the type of distinctly quirky sensibility that made the original cast so invigorating.
A few replacements are able to tap into this - Chester Gregory II seems more honestly youthful as Seaweed (who inspires Tracy's quest for integrated dancing) than the role's originator Corey Reynolds did, and if Barbara Walsh and Tracy Jai Edwards, as the bigoted Velma and Amber Von Tussle, don't surpass originals Linda Hart and Laura Bell Bundy, they're up to the challenge of making these villains so over-the-top evil that, in a strange way, they're lovable.
Of the performers remaining from the original company, Jackie Hoffman (in a variety of oversized ensemble roles), Mary Bond Davis (as Seaweed's mother and Tracy's integration inspiration), and Dick Latessa (as Tracy's father) all provide a vital service in helping keep the show stylistically on track.
Then there's the new Edna, Michael McKean. A game performer, McKean is a natural comic with a more innately attractive singing voice than Fierstein, and he admirably resists the temptation to overplay Edna. Understatement can work for Edna - it certainly did for Divine in the original 1988 Hairspray film, on which McKean seems to have most closely modeled his performance - but is that much harder to make convincing. In the musical, Edna is inherently broad in multiple sense of the word.
McKean never completely succeeds at creating a believable persona of a woman and mother who truly cares about, and wants the best for, her daughter. This aspect was a major foundation of Fierstein's portrayal and helped give the production a real sense of heart and emotional purpose that transcended the show's built-in wackiness. With this missing, Hairspray seems to lack the soul and sense of the joy that once made it so thoroughly entertaining.
The book remains quite funny and well constructed, and the Shaiman/Wittman pastiche scores is still mostly a toe-tapping delight. But a musical must always be more than the sum of its parts and, at least in its current incarnation, the Broadway Hairspray is not. Another spritz or two of zany theatricality is still needed to help keep this slowly toppling beehive of a musical firmly in place.