It takes a big man to play a tender woman. This theatrical truth is made joyously plain from the moment the formidable frame of Harvey Fierstein, wearing a housedress and pin curls, is revealed to the audience of "Hairspray," the buoyantly entertaining mock-'60s musical that opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Fierstein, who first performed in drag on Broadway in his own Tony-winning play "Torch Song Trilogy" in the early 1980s, is back on a New York stage for the first time in 15 years, and once again he seems destined to cause a sensation in beehive and pumps. His Edna Turnblad, a plus-size housewife with a ferocious sense of justice, is not merely a walking fat joke. In Fierstein's touching portrayal, Edna occupies the emotional core of this appealing show, a production that boasts a tolerant heart as large as, well, Edna herself.

"Hairspray," based on the 1988 John Waters movie of the same title, is something of a blessed event, the arrival of that rarest of Broadway babies, a thoroughly solid piece of musical theater. With a spunky, infectious score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, inventively tacky sets by David Rockwell and a breakout performance by Marissa Jaret Winokur as an overweight teen who shoots to local adolescent stardom, "Hairspray" is yet another vital sign, on the heels of "The Producers" and "The Full Monty," that musical comedy is back in vogue.

The marriage of Waters's sensibility to Broadway's is more successful than anyone could have expected. Though better known as a purveyor of bad taste through gross-out movies like "Pink Flamingos" and splatter flicks like "Serial Mom," Waters showed a gentler side with the PG-rated "Hairspray." Set in Baltimore in 1962, it is the tale of Tracy Turnblad, a self-assured fat girl who rises above the snickers of her high school classmates. Tracy is a true '60s idealist: blind to the limits society imposes on outcasts like her and the black students she befriends, and desperate to change the world.

The revelatory quality of the movie, which featured Ricki Lake as Tracy and the cross-dressing star Divine as her mother, Edna, was its uncynical treatment of Tracy: She not only gets the boy of her dreams, she even strikes a blow for civil rights, forcing a Baltimore television station to allow blacks on an all-white sock-hop program. It is wistful fantasy, a vision of a kind of photo-negative America, one in which adolescent willpower is enough to overcome any obstacle, and racial animus can be wiped out in the gyrations of a dance sequence.

The musical stays faithful to the film, right down to an effervescent finale, triumphantly realized here in Shaiman's irresistible "You Can't Stop the Beat." But while Waters tended in his meandering directorial fashion to steer clear of the heavy-handed, the creative team behind "Hairspray" flirts repeatedly with preachiness. A bigoted television producer, played by Linda Hart, is such an obvious (and overwritten) villain that she rapidly becomes tiresome; her harsh solo number, "The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs," disrupts an otherwise flawless first hour. And the ennoblement of suffering weighs down the second act in "I Know Where I've Been," a stirring if gratuitous number sung by Mary Bond Davis, playing a black record-shop owner.

"Hairspray" performs at its considerable best when it simply kicks back and has fun with the material. The songwriters, along with book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, are on intimate terms with the period: The melodies conjure memories of Lesley Gore and Martha and the Vandellas without seeming derivative, and references abound to pettipants and Buster Browns, Supp-hose and Metrecal (ask your parents). Paul Huntley's ingenious wigs could have been designed with an architect's T-square: Check out the towering, gem-studded dos in the finale, coiffures fit for a Conehead. Even the illuminated backdrop is an homage to a '60s toy, the Lite-Brite.

Director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who also headed the strong team that brought "The Full Monty" to Broadway, have a firm grasp on the gentle tongue-in-cheekiness of "Hairspray," and they have put together an ensemble that gets the jokes without underlining them.

Winokur, picking up where Lake left off, is Tracy incarnate. She is large and small at the same time, compact and round and physically agile. (Her shudders in the presence of her love, Link Larkin, played with a sexy sweetness by Matthew Morrison, are performances unto themselves.) And the young actors who fill the major supporting roles around her are all on target, in particular Kerry Butler as a sheltered white girl who falls in love with a black student, played by the equally endearing Corey Reynolds, and Laura Bell Bundy as Amber Von Tussle, Tracy's vicious rival for Link's affections. (In the upside-down world of "Hairspray," it is the pretty blonde who is evil.)

Mitchell's choreography makes splendid use of all the young bodies in motion; in his delicious staging of the first-act number "Welcome to the '60s," a trio of singers, a{grv} la the Supremes, materializes in what seems an echo of another musical that employs a similar device and that sends up the period, "Little Shop of Horrors."

But it is the presence of Fierstein, making his musical theater debut, that is "Hairspray's" most galvanizing feature. Like Divine, he simply will not be denied. It's strange how a man with mounds of padding and a voice like a dump truck in fourth gear can make you forget he's a man. Fierstein's Edna is positively dainty: This is a guy who knows his way around a pair of heels. The hands flutter delicately, the eyes bathe Winokur's Tracy with an ineffable maternal glow. (The only question: Do they nominate him for best actor or actress?)

His performance is bolstered by the commitment of those around him, and he has been given an ideal partner in Dick Latessa's Wilbur, who never for a moment lets you think that Edna is anything but the perfect wife.

It pays off gloriously in their second-act duet, "Timeless to Me," an old soft-shoe number that serves as a kind of tribute to the advantages of being a pro. Together in song, Latessa and Fierstein are like a time-tested pair of skaters, guiding each other with great aplomb through all those figure-eights.

Hairspray, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Costumes, William Ivey Long. With Clarke Thorell, Joel Vig, Danelle Eugenia Wilson, Prudy Pingleton. At the Neil Simon Theatre, New York. Call 800-677-1164.

Harvey Fierstein, larger than life in the Broadway stage version of John Waters's 1988 movie.The stage musical version of the John Waters movie is more successful than anyone could have expected.