“Hairspray” styles comic rock with serious politics

Hokey Burlesque Mixed With Ethics Livens the Score.

By Lucy Komisar

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 thought 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 who created the role) 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 white-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.

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. (Cast members in long running shows change, so you may see it with other performers.)

As much as Tracy wants to be on the show and is mad for Link, she 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 plump. 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 doo-wop singing group The Dynamites (Kamilah Martin, Judine Richard, Shayna Steele) who step jauntily 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 Jack 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!

Hairspray. Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meeham. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Starring in the original cast Marissa Janet Winokur, Harvey Fierstein, Dick Latessa, Laura Bell Bundy, Mary Bond Davis, Kerry Butler, Linda Hart, Matthew Morrison, Corey Reynolds, Clarke Thorell, Danelle Eugenia Wilson.

Currently: Harvey Fierstein, Kathy Brier, Dick Latessa, Richard H. Blake, Jonathan Dukochitz, Tracy Jai Edwards, Barbara Walsh, Chester Gregory II, Jennifer Gambatese, Mary Bond Davis, Aja Maria Johnson. Harvey Fierstein and Kathy Brier will be succeeded on May 4 by Michael McKean and Carly Jibson.

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52 St. Mon-Sat 8, Wed & Sat 2. $65-$100. . Web site at http://www.HairsprayOnBroadway.com.

Images from the original production by Paul Kolnik.

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