HAIRSPRAY * Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan * Music by Marc Shaiman * Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman * Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell * Directed by Jack O’Brien * Starring Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur * Neil Simon Theatre, New York City.

Hairspray delivers what Broadway didn’t even know it needed: a feel-good civil-rights musical. By now everybody knows that composer Marc Shaiman, who wrote the cheerfully obscene songs for South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut, has transformed John Waters’ tangy-sweet 1988 movie into a Broadway musical. He had help from his longtime boyfriend and co-lyricist Scott Wittman and The Full Monty’s director-choreographer team of Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell. Playing Edna Turnblad, the agoraphobic housewife turned proud celebrity mom inhabited onscreen by Divine, Harvey Fierstein gives a performance that is both clownishly broad and impressively nuanced. And in the role that made Ricki Lake a star, 29-year-old Marissa Jaret Winokur takes on Tracy Turnblad, the self-confident white chub whose desire to dance with her black friends on a local TV show ends up de-segregrating 1962 Baltimore.

Word-of-mouth pitches Hairspray as the next big hit on the scale of The Producers. But these days, not even The Producers can live up to its own hype. When you go to see Hairspray -- and you will -- consider scaling back your expectations. The show delivers a delirious good time, but it also contains many small pleasures worth noticing, especially Shaiman’s score and the book by wry novelist and playwright Mark O’Donnell and Broadway veteran Thomas Meehan.

Shaiman and Wittman have come up with the first original Broadway score since Dreamgirls to capture the spirit of early ‘60s pop, when rock & roll met R&B. Many of the songs lovingly reference period classics, from the infectious opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore” (which echoes the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”) to the anthemic finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” (which pays tribute to Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”).

O’Donnell and Meehan capitalize on the most subversive aspect of Waters’ movie. Using high school as a microcosm of American society, the script normalizes the characters who would usually be seen as freaky outsiders and portrays the snobby prejudices of the mainstream characters as pathetic and uptight. When Tracy is banished to detention and then furthered exiled to special ed class for teasing her hair too high, it turns out everybody there is being punished for not being white and straight. “What do you do in special ed?” Tracy asks, and the gay kid squeals, “Musicals!”

Of course, in John Waters’ universe, the underdogs always triumph. Tracy succeeds in making every day “Negro Day” on The Corny Collins Show, and she gets her mother out of the house, and she gets the cute guy. Lest the show rewrite history by suggesting that one brave white girl brought about integration, Hairspray reserves the climactic 11 o’clock number for Motormouth Maybelle, the charismatic rhyme- talking record-shop owner played by Mary Bond Davis. She lets Patterson Park High’s rainbow coalition know that their way was paved by other freedom fighters in a soaring ballad called “I Know Where I’ve Been” that works as a cross between “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “A Change is Gonna Come.” In its own way, Hairspray delivers the political message Tony Kushner conveyed in Angels in America, only at one-third the length. Plus, it has a good beat and you can dance to it. I give it a 95.

The Advocate, October 1, 2002