The musical Hairspray opened at the Orpheum Theatre last night with all the glitz and glamour of an old-time Broadway musical. This might seem to be contrary to the subversive spirit of the 1988 John Waters film on which it was based, but it’s more fun to think that Waters’ twisted sensibility is infiltrating the mainstream.
The plot is roughly the same as the film, making some allowances for the economics of live performance. (Several characters are conflated into one.) In 1962 Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized high school student, wants nothing more than to dance on an American Bandstand-like TV show. But breaking the weight barrier is almost as difficult as breaking the color barrier, and Tracy champions integration to the point of going to jail.
In the midst of Bush-era social policy and in the world of size 0 body fascists, the story has never felt more contemporary. The show not only maintains the movie’s conceit of having Tracy’s mother played by a man in drag (the incomparable Divine in the film), it actually explodes it. A basso Edna only adds to the comedy. The love duet between her and nebbishy husband Wilbur, “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” manages to be simultaneously a broad caricature and yet deeply touching.
Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan have written a smart book, appropriately smart-ass, using some of the best lines from the film, and never taking themselves too seriously. They parody movie genres from frothy fifties teen romances to hardboiled women’s prison movies.
Likewise, the score, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, features numbers that pay homage to music from Elvis to the Supremes. It may be pastiche, but these are quality songs in their own right. Most effective are the big dance numbers, like “Good Morning Baltimore” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” inspiring some fresh and innovative choreography from Jerry Mitchell.
It was a minor frustration that the amplification system is quite inferior, often obscuring the witty lyrics.
Brooklynn Pulver is a dynamo as Tracy with a great voice and a compelling stage presence. Jerry O’Boyle is likewise effective as Edna. He may lack the cavernous low notes of Harvey Feinstein (for whom the role was written), but he knows how take the stage and make the most of every comic moment.
The real star of the production, however, is Yvette Monique Clark as Motormouth Maybelle, a black deejay. She belts out the first act finale, “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” riding atop the chorus and even claiming victory over the sound system. And in the 11 o’clock number, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” she adds real soul (pun intended) to the comedy.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a staid Orpheum Theatre audience screaming and stomping its feet throughout a whole performance. But with Hairspray, it makes sense. I was cheering right along with them.
Hairspray plays through April 29 at the Orpheum Theatre.