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Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa in Hairspray
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
As soon as it was announced that the full-length, two-act musical Hairspray would be whittled down to 90 intermissionless minutes for its Las Vegas production, fans began to wonder how roughly an hour of material could be cut without ruining the show. After all, Hairspray is a skillfully constructed musical with very little music or dialogue that could be classified as negligible, redundant, or superfluous -- unlike The Phantom of the Opera, which is also set for a Vegas run and could only be improved by major editing.

Yes, Hairspray, the irresistible show that centers around a chunky, free-thinking, early '60s teenager and her zaftig mom, has been "trimmed of the fat" for the tab version that's now on view at the Luxor Theatre in Vegas. But since the full-length musical -- based on the popular film of the same title by John Waters -- was so well put together by composer Marc Shaiman, lyricists Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book authors Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, some good red meat has gone along with the gristle. The most regrettable loss is the big, brassy tap number "Big Dollhouse," which opens Act II in the unedited version. It was written to be performed by Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad, her mom Edna, and their supporters in the Baltimore Women's House of Detention, where all are consigned after Tracy leads them in picketing a TV dance show for its on-air segregation of the races. (In the VegasHairspray, the one person we actually see in jail is Tracy.)

The only other two numbers to be cut completely, "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs" and "Cooties," aren't missed at all; the first is the closest thing to a clinker in the show, an uninspired attempt to musicalize the comic villainess Velma Von Tussle, while the latter is a superfluous bit of fluff in the climactic scene. Among the other jettisoned musical material: a few reprises and the "Timeless to Me" encore, though the hilarious "Shabbat shalom" bit has happily been retained in the latter. The subplot of Seaweed's sister Little Inez not being allowed to audition for The Corny Collins Show because of the color of her skin has been cut entirely, but it's not a big loss because the civil rights point is made clearly in several other scenes and songs. There are also dozens of small snips in the script, most of them harmless -- though I did miss the bit where Harvey Fierstein as Edna receives an obscene phone call. ("Hello? What am I wearing? What are YOU wearing!?")

Returning to the role he created, Fierstein is riotous and endearing as ever, clearly thrilled to be re-teamed with Dick Latessa in the role of Edna's hubby, Wilbur. These two simply ooze chemistry and stage know-how, and it's a joy to see them together again as the Turnblads for what may well be the last time. (Reportedly, Fierstein had initially declined to star in the Vegas production and only changed his mind when they made him a financial offer he couldn't refuse.)

Several of the other Vegas leads are veterans of previous productions of Hairspray. Katrina Rose Dideriksen is a dynamo as Tracy -- singing in an alternately sweet and powerful voice, dancing up a storm, and nailing all of her laughs. (The audience particularly loved her delivery of the lyric "Won't go all the way but I'll go pretty far!" in the wonderful Act I number "I Can Hear the Bells.") Austin Miller is terrifically appealing as fave rave Link Larkin; Fran Jaye is a warm, big-voiced Motormouth Maybelle; Katharine Leonard is hilariously spiteful as Amber Von Tussle; and Chandra Lee Schwartz practically steals the show with her comic antics as Tracy's friend Penny Pingleton. Among the non-vets, Terry Lavell as Seaweed is extremely talented and uncommonly tall -- it's almost like watching Wilt Chamberlain do the role -- while Carla Duren is a real presence as Little Inez. And, believe it or not, Susan Anton is the funniest Velma Von Tussle I've ever seen.

As was the case with the Hairspray tour, the Vegas production is basically the same as what you see and hear on Broadway, scaled down in some ways but heightened in others: e.g., a sub-woofer goes wild at key moments in a few numbers; the excellent band (led by Keith Thompson), completely hidden for most of the show, travels downstage on a moving platform during the finale; and a veritable blizzard of confetti engulfs the audience after the last triumphant chord of the show. David Rockwell's scenery, William Ivey Long's costumes, and Kenneth Posner's lighting look as great as ever, as does Jerry Mitchell's unbeatable choreography. All praise to crack director Jack O'Brien for overseeing yet another stellar mounting of one of the most entertaining musicals in history.

The day I arrived in Vegas to see Hairspray, it was announced that the much ballyhooed production of Avenue Q at the Wynn Hotel and Casino will be closing on May 28 after a disappointing nine-month run. It seems that even some of Sin City's major players are having a tough time figuring out exactly which Broadway shows will appeal to the tourists. As someone close to the Hairspray production remarked, the evidence thus far is that people visiting Vegas only flock to musicals and revues that contain songs they already know -- e.g., Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You -- regardless of their quality. And an old friend of mine who's now working in Vegas for another company commented, "As good as Hairspray is, it won't last seven months here." We'll have to wait and see about that. But, whatever its fate, this is as enjoyable and professional a tab production of the show as anyone could hope to see.


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