Tracy Turnblad is the hefty gal who's determined to win a regular spot on the Corny Collins teen TV show in still-segregated 1962 Baltimore. When she does, she's equally determined to triumph in her campaign to have white kids and black kids dance together in front of the Corny Collins cameras. Jibson makes Tracy's won't-take-no-for-an-answer stubbornness highly amusing and also quite touching. Tracy may add color to her hair but she's colorblind when it comes to dancing partners. Jibson plays her with Joan-of-Arc fervor and sings her the same way, throwing back her heavily bewigged head and letting her steely notes soar. By the time she and the cast get to the irresistible "You Can't Stop the Beat" finale, Jibson has made it plain that she can't and won't be stopped from winning audience hearts and minds. Since comparisons are supposedly odious (if inevitable), let's just say that, had Jibson led the original Broadway company of Hairspray rather than bowing in the show on the road, she would likely have won the Tony that went to the accomplished Marissa Jaret Winokur.
Let's also try as much as possible to avoid comparing Michael McKean's Edna Turnblad turn with Harvey Fierstein's. McKean -- worthy of commendation for even venturing to follow in Fierstein's carpet-slipper steps -- is unquestionably proficient in what is now firmly established as a cross-dress role. Maybe "cross house-dress" role is more apt as a description of Edna: She's a good-hearted but homely mother, taking in laundry in order to ease life for her chubby daughter and novelty-store-owner husband Wilbur (still played by the smiling, wonderful Dick Latessa).
McKean, who's padded quite a bit (even Jibson is somewhat padded), sings whatever he has to sing in a firm, husky voice. He easily performs the dancing required of him and convincingly affects a big-boned woman's mannerisms; he seems entirely comfortable as a woman used to corsets and low heels. McKean gets every laugh that book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have handed him. Big and buxom in William Ivey Long's costumes and Paul Huntley's wigs, he does everything right and is especially winning in "Timeless to Me," the show-stopping second act duet with Latessa. (These two have the kind of appealing rapport that earns them the song's built-in nightly encore.) It might be said that McKean, whose voice is strong rather than Fierstein-gravelly, is extraordinarily likeable in a role in which his predecessor was warmly, exuberantly lovable.
Almost two years into the New York City run, there have been many other changes in the show's cast, none of them in any way damaging to director Jack O'Brien's slick packaging. Jennifer Gambatese is now Tracy's nerdish sidekick, Penny Pingleton; like Jibson, she has a sturdily built-in sense of humor and her eventual makeover is a hoot. Chester Gregory II has taken on the kinetic Seaweed J. Stubbs role as if it had been written for him and is magnetic in the exciting "Run and Tell That" sequence. Jonathan Dokuchitz is a beaming Corny Collins; Richard H. Blake is dreamy yet down-to-earth as heartthrob Link Larkin; and Tracy Jai Edwards is wonderfully vile as the scheming Amber Von Tussle. Barbara Walsh as Velma Von Tussle also acquits herself well, although she's saddled with the score's only sub-par number, "The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs." (Why this clinker wasn't excised during the show's out-of-town tryout is a puzzlement.)
In addition to Latessa, the original cast players still keeping the tuner in tip-top shape are Mary Bond Davis as the rhymed-couplet-spouting Motormouth Maybelle and Jackie Hoffman, who does nothing to minimize the vulgarity of some of the lines she has to say in the three roles she plays. Hairspray, which won the 2003 Tony fors Best Musical, continues to give ticket-buyers sufficient bang for their 100 bucks. It's upbeat, it's fun, and it boasts a set of songs that are among Broadway's all-time best pastiches; had some of these tunes been recorded in the '60s, they'd have reached the top of the charts along with "Baby Love" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
All the same, the sunny Hairspray, with its Von Tussle villains, oughtn't be regarded as a perfect show -- or even as effective in some ways as the John Waters laffer from which it's adapted. Along with the good jokes, librettists O'Donnell and Meehan have dropped a number of duds. Also, the authors keep the Von Tussles nasty right up to their 11th-hour volte-face but don't make them genuinely funny in their nastiness. But what the hey! Hairspray, as its title suggests, holds up.
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