We Got Bruce!

From The Chicago Times: It takes a big man to play a larger-than-life woman.

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BY MOLLY WOULFE
Times Features Writer

IF YOU GO

“Hairspray,” based on the John Waters film, starring Bruce Vilanch and Carly Jibson, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, directed by Jack O’Brien. Choreography by Jerry Mitchell, sets by David Rockwell, costumes by William Ivey Long.

When: Tuesday through Feb. 15, 2004

Where: Oriental Theatre/Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago

Admission: $37 to $87

For more info: Call the Broadway in Chicago Ticketline, (312) 902-1400.

It takes a big man to play a larger-than-life woman.

Gag writer Bruce Vilanch has bounce to the ounce.

If only he’d been warned about panty hose, moaned the 5-foot-11 scribe, starring as Edna Turnblad in the ballyhooed national tour of the Broadway smash “Hairspray.” It takes his dresser nearly half an hour to wrestle him into his plus-size tights.

Stockings, groused the 300-pound actor-come-lately, “were invented by a Nazi scientist.”

Full-figured females can empathize. But they’re also cheering. Not so much for the Emmy winner’s distaste of waistbands but his transition from hausfrau to mega-babe in this campy tuner.

“Hairspray,” breezing Tuesday in the Oriental Theatre for month-long run, is a big, fat salute to life, bubblegum music and inner beauty.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 comedy, the retro-musical follows Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Carly Jibson), a “pleasantly plump” teen in 1960s Baltimore. Over the protests of her mammoth mom (Vilanch in drag), the daughter wins a spot on a local dance show.

Life is neato until Tracy learns “The Corny Collins Show” is barred to blacks. It’s up to the little big girl to vanquish her skinny rivals, win the man of her dreams and stand up for civil rights.

Oh, yes, and to pry her reclusive ma out of the house to witness the times a-changing.

Transvestite star Divine created the role of Edna in the movie, and Waters, creative consultant for the musical, authorized Harvey Fierstein to fill his high heels on stage in 2002. “Hairspray,” streaked with sweetness and spritzed with irony, knocked New Yorkers out of their go-go boots.

The upbeat tuner swept off eight 2003 Tony awards including best musical. Actor Fierstein also collected a Tony for his portrayal of Tracy’s muumuu-wearing mama.

Vilanch — known for sitting next to Whoopi Goldberg in “Hollywood Squares” — wasn’t looking for a second career. But mutual friends/show lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman drafted him for the part.

Funny, his buddies had a hard time finding a hefty chap willing to wear curlers for the tour.

Edna “is a strange role to cast,” agreed Vilanch, who shaved off his bushy, signature beard for the part. “It’s a big man who has to sing and dance and play a woman and that’s tough. Any one of those things would be a problem, but all of them together …”

Happily, he’s had experience in cross-dressing. The affable writer played a drag-queen gossip columnist on a short-lived sitcom in the 1980s. The TV show “only lasted two weeks because of a writer’s guild strike,” he reminisced. “There’s not a lot of calls for a bearded lady.”

In industry circles, Vilanch is revered more for comic timing than camp. The New Jersey native has penned jokes for almost every major award show including 15 Academy Award telecasts. He has won six Emmys to date and was the subject of the 1999 documentary “Get Bruce.” The film starred A-list entertainers from Billy Crystal to Robin Williams, all who ‘fessed they relied on Vilanch for punchlines.

At this point, the human joke machine is having such fun as Edna he can’t decide whether to re-enlist or resume his old day job when his contract expires next fall. Vilanch, who penned Bette Midler’s patter for her current tour, in Tracy’s words, admits he’s basking in the spotlight.

Dreaded hosiery and all.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s a gift at this point to have a second act after 30 years of writing. I can live with it.”