Volume II, Issue I Spring 2003

'Hairspray' styles comic rock with serious politics

Review by Lucy Komisar

Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meeham
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman

Directed by Jack O'Brien

Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52 St.
New York
Open-ended engagement

I don't like rock 'n' roll. I loved "Hairspray," where rock is the major musical motif. I don't care for men dressing up in drag. I though Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad, the overweight, tacky, attentive mother of a teenager, was terrific.

This is a play that challenges such prejudices and also keep you grinning from ear to ear.

About prejudices: this is a stirring show for anyone who remembers the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It's Baltimore circa 1962. The heroine (bouncy, jubilant Marissa Jaret Winokur) is not only trying to get her own chubby self onto a Baltimore TV teen bandstand show, but she's trying to integrate it. Maryland 40 years ago was South.

It took me back to that era when I was arrested on the Eastern Shore of that state (worse even than Baltimore) with black and white students waging a campaign to integrate whites-only restaurants. I wonder if younger people who like "Hairspray" for its over-the-top script and clanging music have any sense of how real and important the story is.

Photo by Paul Kolnik
Director Jack O'Brien expertly sneaks in the narrative under a pop-culture-friendly campy rock musical. Tracy, a working-class teen, wants to get on a local TV program run by racist, snobbish Velma Von Tussle (Linda Hart), whose main goal is pushing her equally stuck-up, high-pitched daughter, Amber (Laura Bell Bundy), into a match with the local heart-throb, Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison). Tracy has a crush on Elvis-wannabe Link.

But as much as she wants to be on the show and is mad for Link, Tracy thinks the teen bandstand, and the rest of Baltimore, ought to be integrated. She's willing to put everything on the line to fight for it. She's denounced as a communist and even hustled off to jail. The irony is that the white kids were dancing to black music, here shown in the terrific loose, rubbery choreography of Jerry Mitchell led by Seaweed (Corey Reynolds) in the "Blacker the Berry."

"Hairspray" challenges the notion of glamour. The heroes are not rich and thin; they are working-class and overweight. Tracy dresses totally wrong for her shape in a white ruffled blouse and too-tight short blue skirt. Her father runs the "Har de Har Hut," which sells hokey jokes. The fabulous show-stopper is a ballad duet between Mom (Fierstein) and Dad (Latessa), "You're Timeless to Me," which ought to take its place among the great love songs. Their "couple" has enduring sweetness.

There's some edgy comedy, too. Reynolds is self-assured as Seaweed, the black guy who can't untie a rope with which a frantic white mom tied her daughter to the bed and so deftly pulls out a switchblade. And who can't laugh at the martinet gym-teacher-from-hell (Jackie Hoffman) turning a dodge-ball game into burlesque?

Beginning with David Rockwell's set of Baltimore row houses, to the high hair and flips, the sights complement marvelous sounds, especially from the red-sequined "Dynamites" doo-wop singing group (Kamilah Martin, Judine Richard, Shayna Steele) who step off a billboard.

A militant black lady, Motormouth Maybelle (Mary Bond Davis) does a stirring gospel, "There's a light in the Darkness." And director O'Brien has fun with visual technology, creating a fantasy church wedding complete with stained-glass windows and organ.

"Hairspray" makes you happy to see beehives again.

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