Next stop, Broadway for big, fun 'Hairspray'

There's a moment in "Hairspray" when a street poster of the Dynamites, a black female singing trio clad in spangly red sheath dresses, springs to life. The comely Dynamites suddenly pop off the wall to shimmy down a Baltimore street, belting out a righteous R & B anthem, "Welcome to the '60s," and channeling the soulful force of Martha and the Vandellas.

It is one of many exhilarating moments of delighted cultural recognition in the robust new show "Hairspray," premiering at the 5th Avenue Theatre before it moves to Broadway.

Like the 1988 John Waters movie that inspired it, "Hairspray"-the-musical both spoofs and subverts the pre-fab teen dance-romance flicks of the early '60s — and a lot of other cultural totems of that era.

It also gleefully raids and sends up Broadway's early attempts to appropriate youth culture. A "Bye Bye Birdie" for the Age of Irony, this is a retro-pop romp with wit, heart, a social conscience and, rarity of rarities, a new score by composer Marc Shaiman and his co-lyricist Scott Wittman that really makes you want to go dance in the streets.

Expertly assembled by director Jack O'Brien ("The Full Monty") and many other shrewd and loving hands, "Hairspray" is — for my money — the zippiest and least synthetic or mawkish in a glut of recent musicals spun off hit movies and Billboard backlists.


Runs through Sunday at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $16-$58, 206-292-ARTS.
The show's clever book, by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, stays essentially faithful to Waters' quirky screenplay while taking liberties and adding punchy quips as needed.

And the characters have plenty of reason to sing and dance. Chief among them is teen heroine Tracy Turnblad, played by plump, adorable Marissa Jaret Winokur, who sings with a lollipop power reminiscent of '60s pop princesses Brenda Lee and Lesley Gore.

Tracy may be a pudgy misfit with zilch social status and déclassé parents (wondrous Harvey Fierstein, in Totie Fields-meets-Arlene Dahl drag, and endearing Dick Latessa). But does this kid ever have the beat.

So does Baltimore circa 1962, evoked in "Hairspray" as an exuberant, vibrantly cross-cultural Mecca of music, music, music. One source is the Corny Collins TV show, a local "American Bandstand" dominated by a mother-daughter villain duo: queen-bee producer Velma Von Tussle (Linda Hart) and her grasping, stuck-up offspring, Amber (Laura Bell Bundy).

Velma is a proud bigot who keeps the TV dance party off-limit to blacks (except on "Negro Day") and teenage girls bigger than size 8.

That is, until Corny (Clarke Thorell) makes a star out of eager, dance-mad Tracy and supports her attempt to racially integrate the show. It's not an altruistic move: "Negroes and chubby girls buy hairspray, too," he reminds the show's nervous sponsor.

The Corny Collins sequences give Shaiman and cunning choreographer Jerry Mitchell a hook to sample such '60s pop crazes as "The Madison," mainstream Latin-pop ("Velma's Cha-Cha"), the novelty-dance ditty ("Cooties") and cooing love ballads (crooned by Winokur, and Matthew Morrison, as her hunky paramour Link).

There are more musical delights mined in black Baltimore. As Tracy's genial new pal Seaweed, Corey Reynolds tears up the stage delivering "Run and Tell That," a Wilson Pickett-style soul stomper.

Another high: the gospel-protest hymn "I Know Where I've Been" from gutsy black deejay Motormouth Maybelle (turbo-voiced Mary Bond Davis).

In his first Broadway musical, Oscar-winning film composer Shaiman has the facility (and chutzpah) to toss off more-conventional numbers, like the perky "Timeless To Me," tailor-made for Latessa's smitten, gentle Wilbur, and Fierstein's Edna. (The main contrast between Divine's cinematic Edna and this monumental stage matriarch is how Fierstein manipulates his foghorn voice to hilarious effect.)

As anticipated "Hairspray" looks swell: architect-designer David Rockwell's Baltimore-inspired sets (love that Formstone), Kenneth Posner's snazzy lighting (despite some overdone shadow effects), William Ivey Long's pastel wonderworld of period costumes, Paul Huntley's plastic-fantastic array of bouffant wigs. And it sounds terrific, crisply amplified (for a change at the 5th) with blazing work by conductor Lon Hoyt and band.

An extended "babes in the big house" jail sequence needs work, as does the show's tendency (shared by other new musicals) to crank up the energy right away, and keep it cranked high. Trust the audience: With this material, you don't have to wear them out to keep them plugged in.

But why split hairs? "Hairspray" is big, smart fun — splendidly performed with a score that bears repeated listens. Hey, if New York doesn't twist and shout about it, just bring it on back.

Misha Berson: