Mostly, 'Hairspray' Holds Up Well

John Pinette, left, and Keala Settle in
John Pinette, left, and Keala Settle in "Hairspray" at the Kennedy Center. (By Chris Bennion)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005

On Broadway, the crowds roared for Harvey Fierstein and his wisecracks in Brooklynese. In Baltimore, audiences woo-wooed every reference the show made to their home town. And at the Kennedy Center, they go nuts for each and every political joke.

Watching "Hairspray," the eight-time Tony award-winning musical about the fat girl who gets the guy and in the bargain strikes a blow for integration, it's fascinating to gauge the regional variations in what most tickles the paying guests. Which is another manner of saying that with this '60s confection-a-go-go, there are a lot of ways to share in the joy.

"Hairspray," which this summer celebrates its third birthday on Broadway, is making its first visit to Washington, in a six-week engagement in the Opera House. With an exuberant bubble-gum score and unvarnished optimism intact, the touring version of the hit musical still packs pleasure aplenty. The show's got great intergenerational appeal. It's a daffy, sentimental, slickly entertaining evening that kids can delight in as contentedly as the grandfolks.

However, "Hairspray" exhibits signs of that chronic ailment road-show-itis, more so than the recent stops here of other major Broadway successes, such as "The Producers" and "Movin' Out." A few unfunny things have happened on the way to the Kennedy Center. For one, there has been shameful cutting of corners. The skimping on scenery spoils two of the wittiest sight gags: The unfolding bedroom walls in "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" no longer fan out to reveal an entire chorus of singing photos, and the configuration of David Rockwell's Baltimore streetscape for "Welcome to the '60s" now drains all of the surprise out of the moment the girl-group poster springs to life.

Personnel is also an issue, not a ruinous one, but the lack of star wattage in the role that Fierstein made his own -- Edna Turnblad, the economy-size mother hen who has "wandered beyond the boundaries of the largest McCall's pattern" -- saps the production of some needed electricity. John Pinette, the current Edna on tour, and who is slated to replace Bruce Vilanch on Broadway, reaps his share of the laughs. Yet the performance is a small one.

Though Edna is essentially a second lead -- the show really belongs to Edna's daughter Tracy (Keala Settle) -- she's the musical's soul. This is the role that the drag actor Divine originated in John Waters's 1988 movie of the same title. It may be that the brilliance of Fierstein's interpretation, in which he laid bare a true mom's beating heart, is simply unmatchable. Pinette, a standup comic by training, admirably casts Edna in his own image. He's more blatantly a guy in a dress; the double-edged jokes at the expense of Edna's size and mannishness work better for this actor. When, for example, the evil Velma Von Tussle (Susan Henley) utters one too many fat slurs in her presence, you revel in the capability of this Edna to deck her. Still, there's no substitute for plain old charisma. Pinette is vanilla to Fierstein's tutti frutti. As for Settle, she is a fine Tracy, even if she looks too old for graduate school, let alone high school.

Some "Hairspray" souffles never deflate, no matter who's cooking the recipe. Both Alan Mingo Jr., as a suave black kid, and Chandra Lee Schwartz, playing the white girl he falls hard for, are finds. The sublime character actor Stephen DeRosa takes Edna's husband Wilbur in all the right dizzy directions, while Jane Blass, in a trio of outrageous bit parts, gives wacko a good name. On the musical's trickier turf, its handling of early '60s race relations, Charlotte Crossley is perfection, delivering a bravura turn as Motormouth Maybelle, singer of the sanctimonious show-stopper, "I Know Where I've Been."

According to "Hairspray's" plot, the abuse heaped on Tracy, the plucky fat girl who wants to dance on a local "American Bandstand" TV show in the Baltimore of 1962, makes her a natural ally for the city's black kids, banned from performing on the program except on a designated day each month. When Tracy expresses her wish for the tables to be turned, for black teens to be able to dance on "White Day," Maybelle says, " 'White Day' is every day. You're going to have to get more specific than that.' "

The line always gets a strong response, but the musical's digs at the powers that be seem to play even more sharply in the nation's capital. Tracy, vying for the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray, is appalled that Velma persuades the governor to extend Tracy's jail time after her arrest in a protest at the TV station. "Manipulating our judicial system just to win a contest is un-American!" Tracy cries. The audience at the Kennedy Center bellows its approval.

A political tract "Hairspray" is not, of course. The show is a fairy tale, a '60s idealist's vision of racial barriers coming down through pop music and dance crazes and kids like Tracy -- better life through rock-and-roll. As such, the musical gyrates with a lot more energy than most Broadway entertainments. Marc Shaiman's music is virtually wall-to-wall bliss, and some of the lyrics, written with Scott Wittman, particularly in the romantic quartet "Without Love," remain surprising and clever no matter how many times you've listened to them. The young ensemble, meanwhile, moves with elan through such numbers as the silky R&B-style "Run and Tell That!" and the infectious finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat."

They might, however, add a song specially for the Opera House: "You Can't Hear the Words." Some actors, like Crossley and Settle, enunciate flawlessly. In other songs, however, whole chunks are indecipherable. The words of "The Big Dollhouse," which opens Act 2, cannot be followed. And "It Takes Two," performed by heartthrob Link Larkin (the under-equipped Serge Kushnier), is almost completely unintelligible.

Let's hope these difficulties are ironed out. They should be. Musicals with this much flavor demand to be fully savored.

Hairspray -- music by Marc Shaiman; lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman; book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Sets, David Rockwell; choreography, Jerry Mitchell; costumes, William Ivey Long; wigs, Paul Huntley; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve C. Kennedy; musical director, Jim Vukovich; orchestrations, Harold Wheeler. With Worth Williams, Kahliah Fatima Rivers, John Salvatore, Karen Burthwright, Amanda DeFreitas, Anastacia McCleskey. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Aug. 21 at Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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