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So what else is new?:-) Hairspray Hits Chicago!

‘Hairspray’ goes long way in spreading cheer
Musical comedy serves up healthy dose of fun
By Michael Phillips
Tribune theater critic
December 18 2003, 2:00 AM CST

December in Chicago. The city glowers with skies of gray, and the air is filled with that certain hacking sound, on account of several million people sharing the same cold and/or flulike symptoms. But along comes the national tour of “Hairspray” to cheer us up. And it does.

Continuing at the Oriental Theatre through mid-February, the show is one of the few certifiably good musical comedies of recent years. It comes from the 1988 John Waters movie about Tracy Turnblad, an imposingly structured 1962 teenager heck-bent on integrating Baltimore’s version of “American Bandstand.”

The film was a rare instance of a bad-taste meister going sweet on his fans without going stupid. The stage show, which dominated the Tony Awards earlier this year, is the same success story writ larger.

“Hairspray” has no airs and makes no bones about being a crowd-pleasing hit. It is smoothly engineered and so eager to please it practically invites you over for a milkshake. But it’s smarter and quicker-witted than the average Broadway bear, with a hugely appealing Motown-tinged score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

It sounds great on a second hearing. Near-great, anyway: A couple of numbers, “Miss Baltimore Crabs” and “I Know Where I’ve Been,” don’t quite justify their place in the civil-rights fantasyland story at hand.

“Hairspray” is too much fun, however, for a sober discussion of its imperfections.

Bruce Vilanch, whom you may know from “Hollywood Squares” and a thousand wisecracks uttered by those who have employed him, headlines as Tracy’s mother Edna. This drag role is described in Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s crafty libretto as “a simple housewife of indeterminate girth.”

Vilanch takes a while to get going in the role—he doesn’t really move funny, or know how to barrel through the more expositionally minded scenes. But by the end, the audience likes him lots.

Opening night in Chicago, at the tail end of “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” Vilanch slipped in a couple of lovely ad-libs ribbing Mayor Richard Daley’s late-night Meigs Field demolition and a line about Skokie’s Jewish residents.

Waters’ storyline remains relatively intact, with amplifications befitting a tale of big women living out even bigger dreams. Tracy and her thin pal Penny are two of Baltimore’s biggest teen fans of “The Corny Collins Show.” Tracy auditions for a spot on the show, to the gentle consternation of her folks, laundress Edna and novelty-shopkeeper Wilbur.

The TV show’s venal producer, Velma Von Tussle, takes one look at the plus-sized heroine and sneers. But in cahoots with her newfound detention-class friend, Seaweed, Tracy makes a big splash doing the dance craze called “The Madison.” Poof: She’s a star, with her own mound of newly famous hairsprayed hair, a letch for the hunky Link Larkin and a serious case of the hots for African-American culture.

Vilanch is the star, but the show depends more on whoever’s playing Tracy. Here it’s Carly Jibson, who is most likable and, to my taste, more relaxed and effective than the role’s originator, Marissa Jaret Winokur. In a production that’s coming at you every minute the way “Hairspray” does, a human touch is a welcome touch.

For the Chicago engagement Seaweed is being played by our own Chester Gregory II, well known locally for “The Jackie Wilson Story” and other shows. He’s a gas and a dazzling dancer, whose splits deserve separate billing.

In a subtler, gum-chewing fashion Sandra Denise’s Penny is just as entertaining, embodying the whitest of all white girls, who falls hard for her “black white knight” from the other side of town.

Under the savvy direction of Jack O’Brien “Hairspray” is defiantly old-school in its stagecraft and all the better for it. The show has its saggy passages, to be sure. As in the Waters film, the story runs in small circles near the end, and while the libretto generally works like a charm, there may be one too many fatso insults en route to the mega-happy ending, along with the Special Ed and lesbian jokes.

Yet it’s all sort of charming. This is a charming big hit. It does all the work for you, socking across number after number, the best of which are “Welcome to the ’60s,” “The Big Dollhouse” and the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” It’s true: You can’t. “Hairspray” imagines 1962 Baltimore as one big dance party that was waiting to happen.