So what's not to like about Hairspray, which Mark O'Donnell and Tom Meehan have adapted from John Waters's 1988 movie? Actually, there are a number of things not to like -- or at least to have misgivings about. But more on that later. First, here's a fuller description of the assets that have already rendered the pulsating tuner critic-proof, turned the New York Times into a Hairspray house organ, and created a pre-opening buzz to equal that of The Producers.
For folks who haven't had the chance to grin at Waters's screen version, the story of Hairspray follows Tracy Turnblad (the ready-for-anything Marissa Jaret Winokur), a heavy-set 15-year-old in the Baltimore of 1962 who dreams of being a dancer on the local American Bandstand rip-off, The Corny Collins Show. Tracy, who's inherited fat genes from mother Edna (the padded-and-ready-for-anything Harvey Fierstein), achieves her dream rather quickly and then starts on another: to integrate Collins's dance-a-thon.
Having won the heart of dreamy Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), Tracy enlists him -- along with shy pal Penny Pingleton (Kerry Butler) and the gangly but limber African-American Seaweed J. Stubbs (Corey Reynolds) -- on a crusade to break racial barriers that leads to a riot and lands most of the dance-mad activists in jail. Tracy busts out in time to finish the Miss Hairspray 1962 dance contest, which pits her against both Amber Von Tussle (Laura Bell Bundy), a blonde snob, and Amber's scheming mother, Velma (Linda Hart). In this cartoon world, the Von Tussles, along with Corny Collins's sponsor Harriman F. Spritzer (Joel Vig), represent the bigotry against which Tracy and friends battle.
Since Tracy is full of unmitigated love for her fellow man and woman, as well as for her laundress mom and novelty-store-owner dad, Wilbur (Dick Latessa), she's the embodiment of what mavens claim all good musicals must have: a life force. Her beneficence, reciprocated by the narrative's good characters, is what gives Hairspray its glow, rendering whatever transpires on stage irresistible to audiences. Tracy is so effervescent that musical numbers spring up at her nimble feet, leaving Shaiman and Wittman plenty of openings for hand-clapping songs like "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," "I Can Hear the Bells," "Welcome to the 60s," "Without Love," and "You Can't Stop the Beat." That last tune is meant to recognize the inevitability of integration but it's also a metaphor for the show itself: Hairspray can't be stopped, and foolish is the man or woman who would try to do so.
With bouncy songs available to the performers and with comic writers O'Donnell and The Producers' Meehan spinning the jokes, the performers have abundant opportunities to shine. Winokur, who's been around for some time, is well into her 20s but entirely convincing as the younger Tracy. Under towering hair fantasies, she remains buoyant as a balloon and sings with gale force. (She frequently sounds nasal, as do many other cast members, but maybe the '60s were a nasal decade.) This is a star-making part, of course, and Winokur fills it very well. The same is true of Harvey Fierstein, who takes on with gravel-voiced gusto the role that Divine played in the film. Fierstein as a performer and writer has always had a warmth about him; he's still got it, as he changes from frumpy house dresses to a series of feathered and floaty items. When he and Latessa sing "Timeless to Me" as an in-one number, they're supposed to stop the show -- and they do. It's a slyly subversive portrait of marital bliss (sung, after all, by two men) and it works like a charm.
There's no charge to be made against the rest of the cast either, many of whom each get at least one moment to glitter in the spotlight. Butler and Bundy play good girl and nasty girl with ease. Hart never restrains herself as she goes about trying to undermine Tracy, but this always-reliable second banana does suffer a little in having been handed a Wittman-Shaiman comedy piece that refuses to ignite. Morrison make a suitably Elvis-inspired leading white man, and Reynolds is extremely likeable as the leading black man. Mary Bond Davis, in kudzu-ized yellow wig, is Motormouth Maybelle, boldly singing an 11-o'clock, up-from-oppression anthem called "I Know Where I've Been" that's calculated to pump cheers.
So Hairspray, shrewdly directed by Jack O'Brien, has the look of a hit as large as Amber Von Tussle's final hairdo. No matter that, with the exception of the songs mentioned above, the Shaiman tunes have power and a beat but little personality. (There may be more wit in the Shaiman-Wittman lyrics than is apparent, since many of them are drowned out by the band.) No matter that Jerry Mitchell's dances take advantage of agile dancers but become repetitive before curtain and don't have the sexy verve that Edward Love brought to the movie's numbers. (The movie's title song has it all over the song called "Hairspray" here.) No matter that Waters built virtually no dramatic tension into his screenplay, and that librettists O'Donnell and Meehan, while adding a first-act romantic complication, haven't improved on the deficiencies of the original. No matter that many of the jokes don't land, often because they're cheap. And no matter that race relations in 1962 Baltimore had to have been more tense than either Waters (in a PG-rated film) or O'Donnell and Meehan (in what is intended to be a PG-rated musical) care to acknowledge.