Minnie Loves The Mister (and Hairspray)

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Review: ‘Hairspray’ lives up to Broadway version
Rohan Preston
Star Tribune
Published 02/18/2004

The big question riding on Bruce Vilanch’s shoulders was not about his comic timing, his barrel-like girth or even if those 1960s get-ups in “Hairspray” make him careen around the stage a little too much like a tortoise with shiny carapace.

No, it was whether he and the show could live up to the Broadway original, which turned a stylized after-school cartoon special into a fun, instructive Tony-winning musical about imperfect people trying to perfect America.

After the triumphant, clap-along opening of ‘Hairspray’ on Tuesday at Minneapolis’ Historic Orpheum Theatre, the answer is — back-up singers please — cooingly yes.

True, Vilanch does not have the physical dexterity of Harvey Fierstein, who padded up for the part in New York. And his voice is not as distinctive as the industrial instrument that Fierstein lets out every time he opens his mouth. But Vilanch is both warm mother hen and uncured ham, adding to the mirth and moral of the show with his own hysterical, a-chronological ad-libs about Janet Jackson, St. Louis Park and, in one toot-tooting number, the Minnesota Twins.

He has more than a little help from a cast that includes phenom Carly Jibson, who plays Edna’s teapot-shaped daughter, and supporting players Austin Miller, Terron Brooks and Sandra Denise.

“Hairspray,” based on John Water’s 1988 film, seems almost quaint at a time when America is wrestling with gay marriage, cloning and weapons of mass destruction. Yet it resonates because it has a recurrent theme in our history — scorned people wanting in.

In this case, it is 1962 in Baltimore and “The Corny Collins Show” is all the rage. Tubby teen Tracy Turnblad (Jibson) and her average-sized friend Penny (Denise) audition for the TV show on which Link Larkin (Miller) dances. The young women are spurned by the show’s bigoted producer, Velma Von Tussle (Susan Cella).

Thrown in school detention because of her hairstyle, Tracy learns a dance from some of the black kids who dominate that room. She uses it to get a berth on “Corny Collins.” She plans a surprise integration of the show, which lands her, and all the progressive types, in jail.

Written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, “Hairspray” seems to say that all problems of the past can be danced away. Its integrationist message resonates, even if the blacks in the piece have so little agency in their own liberation.

The staging by director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell isslick, energetic and, even overproduced, coming at you as an endless parade of dance and costumes. (Everyone in the ’60s must have had terrible headaches, judging by those awful clothes.)

The cast is effervescent, with fresh-faced Jibson a better Tracy than her Broadway counterpart, Marissa Jaret Winokur.

The Supremes-like Dynamites (Deidre Lang, Nraca and Sabrina N. Scherff) are just that: dynamite. Songs such as “Welcome to the ’60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat’ are memorable, as are Vilanch’s ‘Timeless to Me,’ a duet featuring Vilanch and Todd Susman, who plays Edna’s husband.

The moral of the story would be summed up later by George Clinton: Dancing, to paraphrase the rainbow-haired funskter, will set your body free.