That Old Feeling: Let Us "Spray"

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The cast of Hairspray dances on Broadway

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Waters based his script on memories of "The Buddy Deane Show," a Baltimore staple that had entranced the young style maven. "I loved it," Waters recently told Blake Green of Newsday. "They [the dancers] were my imaginary friends. I used to watch the show and draw exaggerated hairdos and make up fictitious biographies for all of them. I even danced on the show — twice, both times the dirty boogie. Then I smoked pot and that was all over. My friends radically changed. No more Buddy Deane."

The writer-director, who had made his rep with no-budget comedies about the filthiest people south of the Mason-Dixon line, for once gave his movie an upbeat conclusion that real life couldn't match. "The Buddy Deane Show" never was integrated; it ended its run in the mid-60s as white-bread as always, and staler than ever. By this time "Bandstand" had moved from its original location in Philadelphia (100 miles north of Baltimore) to Los Angeles, where the kids had better bodies and deeper tans, and even the white-ethnic tinge of the teen dancers disappeared into generic good looks. Frankie Avalon went west and turned into Troy Donahue.

For his story about integration, Waters smartly miscegenated two irreconcilable film genres: the message movie and the teen flick, or Sam Arkoff meets Stanley Kramer. To update the genre to the 80s, it was John Waters doing John Hughes, but with his own road map. No Molly Ringwald needed; Ricki Lake, in her motion picture debut as Tracy, is the dream image of every girl who has ever craved that eighth Twinkie. No teen realism here, just a romp through the pastel homes and matching mother-daughter outfits of a more naive era. No anxious parental conflict, at least when Tracy's mom is played by Divine, the 300-lb. actor who always looks the height of fashion in a housedress (it was the drag diva's seventh and last Waters film; he died a month after the movie was released).

Baltimore, for which Waters is still the perverse poet laureate, never looked lovelier. Watch the moon shimmer in a puddle, as a rat crawls through it. See Tracy triumphant, in her pink roach-patterned evening gown. See "Hairspray" too, on a double DVD (with "Pecker") that features Waters' ever-fabulous commentary. It's light and airy, but it will stick around: the first aerosol movie.


It turns out that "Hairspray" really is "The Producers" in so many ways. Let me count them.

Way 1: It's inspired by a cult comedy from a writer-director at least as famous for his talk-show and other extracurricular appearances as for his movies.

Way 2: It's a genuine hit that people want to see and, after they've paid the $100 a ticket, don't feel robbed.

Way 3: It takes a serious historical subject (your integration, your Nazis) and dolls it up beyond all pretense and offense.

Way 4: It has been directed and choreographed (by, respectively, Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell) with a zestful respect for the tone of the piece. There's as much sassy humor in the actors' movements as in their dialogue.

Way 5: It's a bright show, literally: the color scheme of the sets (by architect David Rockwell) and costumes (William Ivey Long) is so cheerful and deliciously gaudy that you can not only like them, you can practically lick them.

Way 6: The performances are broad — well, beyond broad: zaftig — but mostly precise. The actors give the impression this is what they love doing, that they've been rehearsing this stuff in front of their mirrors since they were kids and, praise be, someone finally asked them to do it in public.

Way 7: It's stuffed to the corners with funny images (the rat that scampers across the stage) and nice supporting performances. My early pick for stage stardom is Danelle Eugenia Wilson as Little Inez, younger sister of the show's black male lead; Wilson has fabulous flying feet and a sweet, budding charisma. And my secret chorine is Jennifer Gambatese, in the tiny role of Brenda, the teen who has to leave the show because she's pregnant (by Corky, it's suggested). Gambatese, who then sticks around to add heft and sparkle to the chorus, has the looks of a fleshed-out Parker Posey and that extra bit of juice in her steps. She also hits — on the button she's as cute as — the highest note at the climax of the show's title song.

Way 8: If the evening has a fault, it's one it shares with "The Producer": this is an entertainment that knows exactly how fetching it is. The show is a little too sure of the pleasure it expects to give: virtually every song has a built-in encore. In high school, "Hairspray" would have been voted The Most Likely to Think It's the Most Likely to Succeed. The show is Amber pretending to be Tracy.

Way 9: It has a book (by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) full of smart repartee, delivered at a brisk pace that forces listeners to swallow their laughter so they can hear the next line.


Here's "Hairspray," without the songs (for now) and with a hint of the verbal wit:

At the start, Tracy (Marissa Jaret Winokur) is trapped at home, watching "The Corky Collins Show" with her friend Penny Pingleton (Kerry Butler). Fat Mama Edna (Fierstein) wants to be alone in her misery; she growls to Penny, "Go tell your mother she wants you." Edna is married to medium-size Wilbur (Dick Latessa), who runs the local joke shop; his ambition is to "keep the air from leaking out of my sofa-size Whoopee Cushion." The goal Edna mentions has the same working-class practicality about it: she wants to "find a way to get blood out of car upholstery." But she has a loftier, more furtive dream: to be the Oleg Cassini of the dietally-challenged. "I used to design my own clothes," she muses wistfully, "till I wandered beyond the boundary of the last McCall's pattern size."

Over the objections of Edna, who is uncomfortable in her own capacious flesh and believes that her daughter will be rejected by the snobby TV kids, Tracy answers a "Corky Collins" open call for dancers when Brenda is exiled. She arrives late at the TV station — "I thought we'd never get here! Darn bus wreck..." — and is grilled by the Council of Corky regulars. Tracy's spunk and terp-ability appeal to Collins (Clarke Thorell), who has the radical notion that "It's time we put kids on the show who look like the kids who watch the show." (Jerry Springer later took that idea and honed it to putting people on his show who were even dumber, uglier and more deranged than the people who watched it.) But the show's producer, Velma Von Tussle (Linda Hart), insists on keeping the cast prim and pretty, with her blond daughter Amber (Laura Bell Bundy) as the Shrewish American Princess and hunky Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison) as her consort.

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