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Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 15, 2002

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 Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein. Also Starring Laura Bell Bundy, Mary Bond Davis, Kerry Butler, Linda Hart, Matthew Morrison, Corey Reynolds, Clarke Thorell, Danelle Eugenia Wilson, and Dick Latessa. With Eric Anthony, Shoshana Bean, Joshua Bergassse, Eric Dysart, Adam Fleming, Jennifer Gambatesse, Greg Graham, Danielle Lee Greaves, David Greenspan, Katy Grenfell, John Hill, Jackie Hoffman, Hollie Howard, Katharine Leonard, Kamilah Martin, Rashad Naylor, Judine Richard, Peter Matthew Smith, Todd Michel Smith, Shayna Steele, Brooke Tansley, Joel Vig.
Theatre: Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM. Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM. Sunday at 3 PM.
Ticket prices: $65 - $95
Tickets: Ticketmaster

There's much to say about the new musical adapted from the 1988 film by John Waters, but it's probably best to begin by pointing out that it has finally arrived at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre and won't be leaving any time soon. Happily, the unassailable success lying ahead for it has been mostly well earned.

The other good news is that, while Hairspray can easily be compared with a number of other musical comedies of the last couple of seasons, in its own way it leaves each in the dust. Hairspray may not be a transcendent experience and it may not change your life, but it is incredibly entertaining.

Waters provided the foundation for the show (he receives "Consultant" billing in the playbill) on which Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have constructed a clever and entertaining book. While sharpening the focus would help in a few places, it manages to tell its story with great effectiveness, solid laughs, and heart to spare. The story of the overweight Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur), who fights for the right to dance on The Corny Collins Show, is as inspiring as it is just plain fun.

There's even more to say about the score. Marc Shaiman, who wrote the music and lyrics (with some help on the latter from Scott Wittman), has concocted a series of about twenty bouncy, tuneful numbers that will make both survivors of the 1960s and those born too late wish they could go back in time. Shaiman and Wittman are paying homage without pandering, and presenting the songs without comment - the characters think in these terms, why shouldn't they sing the same way?

Every song, though completely new, seems recognizable. There's the lovably cheesy 1960s pop of "Good Morning Baltimore," the television corniness of "The Nicest Kids in Town," and the adolescent emotions of the wailing "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now." The invention of the score doesn't stop until the show does - "Welcome to the 60s" is as likely to break into a sizzling turn for the Baltimore girl group trio, the Dynamites (Kamilah Martin, Judine Richard, and Shayna Steele) as the show's finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat" is to send the audience out humming and, probably literally, dancing.

For the direction and choreography that keep all this in check, Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell are providing the same caliber of work that so energized The Full Monty two seasons ago. But their work here is even more creative and energetic. O'Brien's 1962 is part photograph, part cartoon, and part caricature, with the overly colorful sets (David Rockwell), costumes (William Ivey Long), and especially hair (Paul Huntley, who may inspire a new Tony category) to match. Mitchell's dances seem to encompass every style of 1960s dance, but it's done with such love and pizzazz, it never gets old.

All the show's playful energy is sabotaged late in the second act, in the near disastrous moment that the other half of the show's integration plot comes to fruition. When the producer of the Corny Collins Show, Velma Von Tussle (Linda Hart) and her daughter Amber (Laura Bell Bundy) shut out Tracy, her complaint is taken up by the black people in town, making civil rights in Baltimore a key issue. The black TV station employee Tracy befriends, Motormouth Maybelle (Mary Bond Davis), leads the protesters in the plaintive near-gospel number, "I Know Where I've Been," which grinds the show to a complete halt. It's the one forced, untrue moment in the show. The show is able to recover from this quickly, but had Shaiman and Wittman found a more effective way of dealing with that moment, the show could have maintained its momentum almost entirely from beginning to end.

That it comes so close is, finally, a tribute to its cast, perfect practically to a person. Winokur is youthful, lively, and energetic at the show's center, and carries most of the show without a second thought. Kerry Butler is highly amusing (if a bit underused) as her best friend Penny, and Hart and Bundy are memorably and hilariously over-the-top in their wickedness.

But the best performance in the show is given by Harvey Fierstein as Tracy's mother, Edna. In his luminous turn, Fierstein is moving and funny, providing all the star power needed to push the show over the top. His second act duet, "Timeless to Me," with the ever-winning Dick Latessa as Tracy's father, is not only an unexpected and unqualified show stopper, but one of the warmest and most loving moments the Broadway musical has seen in many, many years.

One must wonder, though, how the show will find someone to fill his shoes. His performance is so powerful, so central to the success of the show, that it may be exceedingly difficult to find someone else with exactly the same qualities. In fact, with so many in the cast as perfectly in tune with their roles, what will the search for replacements be like, and how will the show survive?

That question will have to be answered eventually. But not now. Right now, Hairspray is a joyous tribute to an era past, and an intelligent, warm, and joyous musical comedy of the type Broadway should never be without.

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