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John Waters Brings His Baltimore Freakshow to Broadway
Hairspray's Baltimore
Hairspray's Baltimore
August 27, 2002 | Movies Invade Broadway! It's easy to imagine the headlines. With ideas for original musical theater apparently dried up, Broadway producers have been bringing more and more adaptations of movies to the Great White Way. The enormous success of the stage adaptation of Mel Brooks' The Producers certainly helped spark the recent trend but the axe swings hard the other way too, with musical versions of Sweet Smell of Success, Reefer Madness and Footloose tanking. Of course, there's always that grave-robber Andrew Lloyd Webber, combing the archives for another classic to exploit (Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Whistle Down the Wind). And who can forget the infamous debacle that was the musical version of Brian DePalma's horror film Carrie? That stinker closed after five shows. Still, the market is there for a good adaptation and, against all obvious wisdom, the filmmaker best able to jump in is shock auteur John Waters.

John Waters has always been something of a hybrid. His classic movies (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble) somehow manage to combine perverted, disgusting acts with colorful Vincent Minnelli-style visuals and Douglas Sirk melodrama. Beginning with Polyester he started moving in a slightly more mainstream direction. Polyester was almost there, but 1988's Hairspray was the perfect vehicle for Waters to finally penetrate America. The tale of portly Tracy Turnblad and her quest to desegregate the Corny Collins dance show in 1962 Baltimore had ample room for Waters' hijinks as well as material suitable for the whole family. The film featured Waters last collaboration with Divine, the huge drag queen that had starred in nearly all of his movies to that point and who passed away right around the time the film opened. Divine's passing left a big hole in the world of Waters films that he hasn't really sought to fill. Hairspray also introduced the world to Ricki Lake, who played Tracy Turnblad with pep and wit.
Harvey Fierstein's steppin' out
Harvey Fierstein's steppin' out

Hairspray has a lot of things going for it: jokes, dancing, racial strife, giant hairdos, women in prison. But one thing it doesn't have is original music. The job of turning the movie into a stage production fell to composer Mark Shaiman and partner Scott Wittman, who jointly wrote the lyrics for Hairspray's 17 songs. Shaiman, who wrote the music himself, is the genius behind the songs in South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut and he clearly knows how to turn weird material into great music. Waters stayed on only as an advisor for the musical, leaving the day-to-day work to the regulars. Although he does contribute a cameo of sorts to the show, his primary role is as admirer. He recently explained why the show isn't camp: "Camp is something that's so bad, it's good. But I think Hairspray's so good, it's great!"

Cinema Gotham recently had the opportunity to check out Hairspray at the Neil Simon theater (250 W 52nd St., (212) 757-8646). There's something so right about the show that it's no surprise that it's fast becoming the hottest ticket in town. (It's also produced by the same folks who spearheaded The Producers, so it seems they know what they're doing.) Six days after opening night the line was around the corner for advanced ticket sales and the capacity crowd was chomping at the bit for the show to start. Even the senior citizens in the house were practically jumping out of their seats in anticipation. The moment the lights faded the crowd roared. Enthusiasm actually grew throughout the show, with the entire audience cheering each new cast member and set change.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, Debbie Harry, Divine and Ricki Lake in the movie
Colleen Fitzpatrick, Debbie Harry, Divine and Ricki Lake in the movie

All of the accolades are well-earned, however. The cast is uniformly excellent. In a stroke of casting genius Edna Turnblad, Divine's old role, is played by the only actor that makes sense: Harvey Fierstein. Fierstein's Edna goes from dingy shmates to Pucci-colored, feather-fringed gowns and back with blue collar grace. Fierstein, who wrote and starred in the seminal stage production Torch Song Trilogy, has the unique ability to mix comedy, strength and sassy attitude and still maintain a connection with the audience on an emotional, personal level.

Divine played Edna as slightly aggressive but still loving and it's nice to see Fierstein build on the intimate nature of Divine's performance. But being the skilled entertainer that he is he makes the character his own as well. Fierstein doesn't sing much in the first half of the show which didn't seem unreasonable given that his voice sounds like an alligator after smoking a carton of gravel. The second half, however, brings a number of Harv-heavy numbers, including "Timeless to Me", a loving duet between Edna and hubby Wilbur (the ultra-smooth Dick Latessa). Hearing Fierstein croak out lines like "You'll always hit the spot, big shot!" is enough to warm any heart.

Fierstein may be the biggest name in Hairspray, and the role of Edna may be expanded from the film, but the biggest role – Tracy Turnblad – belongs to Marissa Jaret Winokur. Winokur is onstage for nearly the entire show and her energy level is astonishing. She affects a voice that hits all the 60's girl group details from breathy sex-appeal to Betty Boop peep. It's clear that Winokur's range is extreme and the combination of her excellent singing, rock-solid acting and great sense of humor really make it seem like she's the only woman who could have pulled the role off. Ricki Lake was perfect in the film but she didn't have to combine the number of disciplines that Winokur does here. This is clearly a star-making performance and, if Broadway is able to provide more roles for a woman who adds up to more than just another wan waif, she'll be headlining shows for a long, long time.

Winokur and Matthew Morrison
Winokur and Matthew Morrison

The rest of the cast is equally great. One of the many stand-outs is Kerry Butler as Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton. This mousy character doesn't make much of an impression in the movie as played by Leslie Ann Powers, but on stage Butler really lets loose. She's actually so much fun to watch with her wide-eyed astonishment and character-driven squeeky voice, that I almost wish I'd seen her as Belle in Disney's Broadway adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Almost.

Also worth singling out are Corey Reynolds as Seaweed, Linda Hart as Velma Von Tussle and Mary Bond Davis as Motormouth Maybelle. Reynolds is a compelling actor with tremendous amounts of charm and magnetism. His show-stopping performance in "Run and Tell That" is exciting, moving and extremely funny. I had to cover my mouth from laughing so hard when he started belting out lines like "The blacker the berry / the sweeter the juice" and "the darker the chocolate / the richer the taste." Hart is extremely effective as the evil Mrs. Von Tussle, whose former beauty queen status has left her with the bitter disgust of anyone who can't follow in her footsteps. As for Davis, she has big shoes to fill, taking the role played on screen by R&B / soul legend Ruth Brown, but her strong voice and enormous stage presence fill the theater to bursting. Although she only first appears near the end of the first act, her introductory number "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" is a hip-grinder with enough va-va-voom to fill up the room.

Stand-outs Butler and Reynolds
Stand-outs Butler and Reynolds

As an adaptation Hairspray is a total success. It stay true to the film's themes and sensibilities, as well as much of the plot, without feeling forced or overly rehearsed. The music-heavy film may seem like an ideal candidate for the stage but, unlike The Producers with its long Springtime for Hitler show-within-a-film, Hairspray the movie doesn't contain any stage-ready songs. A number of Shaiman and Wittman's songs come from specific lines of dialog, like "Welcome to the 60's" and "Big, Blonde and Beautiful," a nice way of simply expanding on what Waters' characters were already saying. Other songs help flesh out characters that have been changed from the film. "The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs" gives Velma Von Tussle additional motivation, history, and a reason to be bad while still advancing the plot. Since her character is something of a composite from the film (she combines the characters played by Debbie Harry, Mink Stole, and Sonny Bono), she becomes much richer and funnier. Other songs worth mentioning are "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," which expands the show's obsession with mother-daughter issues, and "The Big Dollhouse," which moves the plot forward while referencing Jack Hill's 1971 women-in-prison exploitation flick of the same name.

Hairspray also manages to get many Baltimore details right without appearing too in-jokey. The sets are covered with formstone, an exterior siding that became extremely popular after World War II and has covered much of the city ever since. "Good Morning, Baltimore," the opening number, name-drops "the rats on the street," "the bum on his barroom stool" and "the flasher who lives next door," a grouping that anyone who's lived in the slightly rough-and-tumble town for a few years (as I have) will be familiar with. Although no one attempts the bizarre Baltimore accent, the feel is there for a small town that wants to be big, a notion shared by most of the characters.

Lake does the bug in the movie
Lake does the bug in the movie

Still, there are moments when the story gets fumbled. A few important events happen off-stage with a character breathlessly running in to recap, an unsatisfying device. A couple of key moments happen during songs when they would have been better off with their own songs. The enraptured audience would have gladly sat through a few additional minutes if it meant creating an entire song for Tracy and the gang's protest of the Corny Collins Show's racist policies. Some critics have mentioned the implausibility of the hunky Link falling for portly Tracy but that's not a problem. Rather that's part of what makes Hairspray so much fun. Here's one story where the big girl wins by virtue of her dancing and personality. Still, some viewers need more of a reason.

But Hairspray has something that helps gloss over little snags like that, something that most other shows would kill for: Pure joy. It's clear that the entire cast and crew, from the folks who formed the enormous wigs to the designers who fitted Edna's falsies had a blast. The cast is so winning, the music so lively and the lighting and staging so boldly colorful that it's not possible to leave the theater without smiling. The audience at the show I attended was almost euphoric with glee over what they were seeing, a revelation in how to entertain a couple thousand people at once. The songs, sets, costumes, and overall energy level are so much a part of what makes the show great that it's easy to imagine the audiences still coming once this cast has moved on, the way they have for the perpetually successful The Producers. Still, for fans of the material it's not a bad idea to try and brave the lines and see Hairspray with this cast. The entire ensemble is great and Winokur, Reynolds, Hart, Butler and the incredible Fierstein help to create a melding of movies and theater that won't be forgotten any time soon.

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