Despite a few technical gremlins, which stopped the show as certainly as (if much less happily than) many of its musical numbers, Hairspray, which world-premiered in Seattle after two weeks of previews, seems assured of arriving on Broadway to a welcoming reception from critics and audiences alike.
Librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan seized on a movie property, one of the more lighthearted and innocent pieces from the John Waters catalogue. They ideally teamed with composer Marc Shaiman to provide a Kennedy era bubble-gum rock mixed with rhythm & blues sound, set with nifty and zany lyrics by Shaiman and his writing/life partner Scott Wittman. Add in that hot Full Monty team of director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, the ideally cast Harvey Fierstein (pictured at left) in Divine's movie role as Edna Turnblad, and Broadway star-in-the-making Marissa Jaret Winokur as Edna's determinedly upbeat and courageous daughter Tracy, and you have a feel-good Broadway musical that can best be described as Bye Bye Birdie with a social conscience.
1962 Baltimore is the setting in which Winokur's zaftig and zesty Tracy longs to join the cool kids who perform on The Corny Collins show (think American Bandstand but with a smooth, singing host). Right at the top, in the infectious "Good Morning Baltimore" number, Winokur shows us she can beat her drum just as loud as Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and will probably follow Foster to the Tony podium next year. Fierstein expertly makes you forget he's as man in a dress and captures the essence of Tracy's downtrodden but supportive mother, abetted by veteran
There is also the substantial contribution of the huge voiced and endlessly endearing Mary Bond Davis as Seaweed's platter-spinning mama, Motormouth Maybelle, who waxes comic in a fantastic paean to people of size called "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful," and soulful in the inspirational "I Know Where I've Been." Clarke Thorell is winning and easy on the ear as Corny, and a pint-sized dynamo named Danielle Eugenia Wilson draws our attention as Seaweed's kid sister Little Inez. Finally, without a song to call her own, Jackie Hoffman is a scene-stealer supreme (and the most Watersesque personage on the stage) as Penny's frumpy mother and a succession of sour-faced authority figures.
The show is also a smash in the design departments, from David Rockwell's glorious Technicolor sets, to William Ivey Long's hilariously apt costumes, to Kenneth Posner's dazzling lighting design. Harold Wheeler's always apt and agreeable orchestrations make the show sound glorious. Unless I miss my guess, Hairspray will be blowing audiences away on Broadway and on tour for years to come, but thanks to the folks at the 5th Avenue, Seattle audiences, for once, can say we got to see it here first!
Hairspray runs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 23. For further information visit their website at www.5thavenuetheatre.org, and for more information on Hairspray on Broadway go to www.hairspraythemusical.com.