Desegregation Doo-Wop

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Is it time to start worrying about the dumbing down of the Broadway musical? The trend is alarming. Say what you will about the Brit-pop musicals that dominated Broadway in the 1980s and '90s, but shows like Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera at least had big ambitions and tried to engage the audience emotionally. The Broadway hits of the past few years have been of a different, more frivolous sort. Most of them are aimed at kids (The Lion King), or they hark back to old-fashioned eras with tongue planted in cheek (42nd Street, Thoroughly Modern Millie), or they have books that are too patently silly for any sentient adult to pay attention (Mamma Mia!). Even The Producers, for all its pleasures, gets much of its comedy from Friars Club jokes about big bazooms and limp-wristed homosexuals, gags that passed muster only because they came from a revered master, Mel Brooks.

So it's fitting that the big, bubble-headed new musical Hairspray is about to become Broadway's next huge hit. Its hype has been building for months, ever since a critically praised tryout in Seattle. Advance ticket sales have hit $14 million, one of the highest in Broadway history.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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Based on John Waters' 1988 cult film about a chubby teenager who dreams of winning a spot on an American Bandstand- like TV dance show, Hairspray takes us back to the era everyone loves to make fun of, the early 1960s. In theater-coiffure terms, we're in the sweet spot between Grease and Hair. Movie composer Marc Shaiman (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut) makes his Broadway debut with a score that skillfully mimics the era's perky pop ditties, and director Jack O'Brien has put together a slick, high-spirited production. Add to that a politically correct story line about a girl who fights to integrate the dance show, and you have an unbeatable combination: desegregation and doo-wop.

Hairspray certainly looks terrific. Scenery designer David Rockwell goes for wit and color (prettiest in pink) rather than bombast. A forest of microphones and klieg lights sprouts from the ceiling; disembodied heads appear, Laugh-In style, inside big-haired pictures that wiggle back and forth. If this is eye candy, dish out more.

And though the show turns Waters' subversive (if rather slipshod) movie into a feel-good sitcom, that's mostly O.K. Waters based his story on a real Baltimore teen TV show of the late 1950s and '60s, and the naive outrage of Hairspray heroine Tracy Turnblad at the show's race discrimination — blacks are relegated to a once-a-month "Negro day"--is satisfying in a storybook, wish-fulfilling way. As the chunky Tracy, Marissa Jaret Winokur is a buoyant fireplug who almost convinces us that she really can outdance everyone else onstage. (Choreographer Jerry Mitchell helps by keeping the chorus kids in check.) And Shaiman's songs (with lyrics co-written by Scott Wittman) are fun, even if they never go much beyond parody. When the numbers aren't imitating the "ooh! ooh! ooh!" squeals of '60s girl songs, they are cloning Jerry Herman show music of the same era, as in a romantic soft-shoe duet, Timeless to Me, between Tracy's parents.

Harvey Fierstein, in drag as Tracy's battleship mom (the role played by Divine in the movie), is Hairspray's showstopping centerpiece. But somewhere between his flouncy scenery chewing (with a chainsaw voice that is now painful to hear) and the familiar gags about uptight parents and butch gym teachers, Hairspray starts to lose its fizz. Making fun of the '50s and '60s has become so passe that this cartoon version gets old pretty fast. The smiley social commentary — Tracy meets the school's black kids in detention and discovers that they have rhythm — only makes the show's facetiousness more glaring. "Why do they have to be so mean?" Tracy cries, lamenting that she's not more popular. "I'm teasing my hair as high as I can!" No one wants Hairspray to be Les Miz, but real emotion is better than fake, and sometimes an audience needs more than just a big tease.