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Shake It Up, Baby

Harvey Fierstein's back on Broadway in Hairspray, a big fat wet kiss of a show, and all's right with the world; the Roundabout spruces up The Boys From Syracuse -- but why?


Dreamgirls: Harvey Fierstein, left, and Marissa Jaret Winokur as mother and daughter in Hairspray.  

You may be forgiven for leaving your sunglasses on through most of Hairspray, the exuberant new musical that has been fashioned from John Waters's 1988 film about Baltimore teens at the doorstep of integration in the early sixties. Staged within an inch of its life by Jack O'Brien and set positively awhirl by choreographer Jerry Mitchell, the show opens in overdrive. And before barely a note is sounded, it strikes the eye with a neat visual joke: The shimmering curtain rises on the heroine, chubby Tracy Turnblad, waking in a vertical bed reaching toward the proscenium, surrounded by 45-RPM disks, singing an anthem to her city. Soon the chorus joins in, silhouetted row above row in glowing orange ovals behind a black backdrop before the whole thing dissolves to a street scene. It's vivid, refulgent work from set designer David Rockwell and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, and a perfect introduction to a charging score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that starts out bold and grabby and never lets up. Indeed, so many numbers in Hairspray bring down the house, it's a wonder the Neil Simon Theatre is still standing after the final curtain.

More than anything, Tracy wants to dance on Corny Collins's American Bandstand-style TV show, but she's thwarted by her archenemy, thin, blonde Amber Von Tussle, and Amber's equally nefarious mother, the show's producer. Tracy also lusts after Amber's boyfriend, Link, an Elvis wannabe. One afternoon a month, the show is given over to "Negro Day," whose crowd Tracy and her best friend, Penny, hang with, especially after Penny falls for its sexiest dancer, a cat named Seaweed J. Stubbs. The other white folks are scandalized, but by the end, Tracy has displaced Amber as queen of the dance floor, whose racial makeup will henceforth more closely resemble that of the surrounding city, and not just on Negro Day. I promise I'm not giving any secrets away.

Hairspray did not pad into town on cat's feet but arrived from Seattle with blockbuster stamped all over it and a will to please. Of course, the film itself was watered-down Waters, a grab at mainstream success following a series of fabulously nasty satires; no Odorama here. So who could quibble with a musical so relentlessly upbeat, wrapping its pudgy arms around such good liberal ends? Especially one that brings Harvey Fierstein back to Broadway as Tracy's mom, Edna, spreading tolerance and love and mock-gruff exasperation, making the world safe for any song with a great hook.

No duo is more expert at providing that than Shaiman and Wittman; at times -- several times, in fact -- they out-Leiber-and-Stoller Leiber and Stoller with what struck me as ersatz rock and roll; there's even the requisite R&B number belted to the rafters (most effectively, by Mary Bond Davis). In a show full of visual coups, the best features a Supremes-style trio stepping down from a billboard to rouse the willing kids in "Welcome to the '60s." The songs sound so familiar you may well find yourself singing along even if you've never heard them before.

Shaiman and Wittman cannot always be relied upon for their taste. The lyric for a classic vaudeville turn they've given Fierstein and Dick Latessa, who plays Tracy's goofball dad, includes the lines "You're like a stinky old cheese, babe / Just gettin' riper with age," and there are plenty more where that came from. Thomas Meehan, who partnered with Mel Brooks last year on The Producers, is joined by Mark O'Donnell in the book-writing duties here. Though they, too, can be crude -- there's a lesbian gym teacher and a leering jail matron -- who knows? The Waters of Pink Flamingoes might revel in all of this. And I haven't even mentioned William Ivey Long's wonderful restraint-free costumes, particularly winning for the multiple, final-scene makeovers, or Harold Wheeler's irresistible orchestrations.

In a company of standouts, Marissa Jaret Winokur's vivacious Tracy (the film role made a star of Ricki Lake), Kerry Butler's duck-to-swan Penny, and Corey Reynold's limber Seaweed are particularly appealing. Ferociously determined to win us over, Hairspray makes the summer's other sixties lovefest, Goldmember, seem more Jane Austen than Austin Powers by comparison. It's shagadelic, baby.

In The Boys From Syracuse, the comedy is all about sex, the errors about mistaken identity, and everything, of course, works out in the end, abetted by a Rodgers and Hart score that includes such treasures as "Falling in Love With Love" and "This Can't Be Love." For the Roundabout's cheerful production, playwright Nicky Silver has rewritten George Abbott's book. I'm not sure why this was necessary, but the result is breezily economical and only occasionally crass (do we really need a hooker named Chlamydia?). Two songs from earlier R&H shows -- "A Lady Must Live" and "You Took Advantage of Me" -- have unaccountably been interpolated into a score that needs no embellishment.

It has been only five years since an "Encores!" presentation of the show spoiled many of us for anything but a dazzling, full-scale revival. Scott Ellis's fleet staging is somewhat deflated by Rob Ashford's unmemorable dances (though "You Took Advantage of Me" is memorably tacky). Thomas Lynch's imaginative minimalist sets and Martin Pakledinaz's witty costumes -- ancient Greece by way of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In -- are blindingly, which is to say aptly, lit by Donald Holder.

The two sets of identical twins are endearingly cast, with Jonathan Dokuchitz and Tom Hewitt as the Antipholi, and Chip Zien and Lee Wilkof the Dromios, the latter pair giving a veritable master class in neurotic Jewish Greek second-bananadom. Toni DiBuono has a Bette Midler brassiness as Luce, all the better to belt "What Can You Do With a Man" to the rear balcony. Lauren Mitchell and Erin Dilly as lovelorn, or maybe just sex-starved, sisters put the show's big torch numbers across convincingly, all punched up by Don Sebesky's jaunty orchestrations. Everything comes to a giddy peak in the second act, when Wilkof and DiBuono sing the comic love song "He and She." They're utterly disarming, in a mostly disarming show.

John Simon is on personal leave.

Musical based on the 1988 John Waters film; book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
The Boys From Syracuse
Revival of the 1938 Rodgers and Hart musical, with new book by Nicky Silver; staged by Scott Ellis.


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