Hairspray: The Message Underneath The Spectacle

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‘Hairspray’ holds up well with its message and lively music
By Judith Newmark
St Louis Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

A mother (Bruce Vilanch)-daughter (Carly Jibson) shopping trip brings mom out of her shell.

“Hairspray,” the winner of the 2003 Tony Award for best musical, has grown out from its roots.

The first mainstream success for counterculture filmmaker John Waters, it has turned into the new “Grease” – a teen-powered show with a Top 40 beat and a family-friendly message about acceptance.

In fact, it centers on one of the friendliest, happiest families ever to grace the American stage: the Turnblads of Baltimore, circa 1962.

The teenage daughter, Tracy (Carly Jibson), is a big, beautiful doll, a bundle of energy who’s not afraid to stand up for principles like tolerance and fair play. But then why shouldn’t she be a great kid? Her parents have brought her up with plenty of love and support.

The Turnblads have a wonderful marriage. True, they are a little on the odd side. Wilbur, a would-be inventor, ekes out a living at his gag-gifts shop while his shy wife hides in their apartment upstairs, doing other people’s laundry. Nevertheless, as they explain in a show-stopping duet, their love is timeless.

And both of them are men.

Sort of.

Unlike “La Cage aux Folles,” in which a gay man tries to resolve a sticky situation by dressing as his partner’s female wife, “Hairspray” centers on a heterosexual marriage. But the wife always is played by a man. It’s not so much camp as a cousin to the English comedy tradition in which men dress as women for laughs.

In the touring company that opens at the Fox this week, Todd Susman, the veteran character actor from St. Louis, plays Wilbur. The role of Edna, his beloved and enormous wife, is played by Bruce Vilanch, the comedy writer and performer best recognized as the outrageous, fast-quipping queen on “Hollywood Squares.” Of course, he shaved off his leonine beard for the part. He claims that he tried to persuade the producers that it could work, but Edna as a bearded lady demanded more tolerance for human quirks than even “Hairspray” could accommodate. You may have caught the big depilation, which took place on “Live With Regis and Kelly.” At the sight of his bare face, Vilanch says, Kelly Ripa looked so appalled that he thought Kathie Lee Gifford must have popped up behind him.

As Edna, Vilanch has big wedgies to fill. Divine, the late underground drag queen who starred in some of Waters’ most shocking movies, created the character on film. (The movie propelled his costar, the then-unknown Ricki Lake, to celebrity.) Harvey Fierstein won the Tony for his portrayal of Edna on Broadway.

Could a woman play Edna? Absolutely not, Vilanch insists. The show includes jokes based on a man in the role; for example, that romantic duet, “Timeless to Me,” is arranged for Edna to sing the lower part, Wilbur the higher. But more important, he says, a man as Edna “keeps that John Waters edge” in the show.

The frankly hilarious appearance of Edna – who is about a million miles from the glamorous transvestites that Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo portrayed in “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” – also includes the audience in more than a joke. It makes us complicit in the “Hairspray” theme: acceptance of self, acceptance of other people.

On its shiny pastel surface, “Hairspray” doesn’t look like a message musical. With its lively songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s sharp dance numbers, David Rockwell’s cartoon-like sets and especially Paul Huntley’s hilarious “hair-hopper” wigs, it looks like pure fun. And it is.

But Tracy, the spunky heroine, takes on prejudices regarding both race and size. She wants to perform on a dance-party TV show, and she does; being the heaviest girl on the set doesn’t keep her from becoming the most popular one, winning the cute boy away from her snooty, skinny blond rival. And – with the help of her best friend, Penny, a white girl, and Penny’s secret boyfriend, Seaweed, who is black – she leads a comic but successful campaign to integrate the dance show, too.

In one of Vilanch’s favorite scenes, Tracy even helps her mother come out of her shell. Thanks to her sudden TV celebrity, the owner of a plus-sized dress shop wants to give Tracy a whole new wardrobe to show off on camera. She persuades her mom to go to the store with her, and when they emerge in matching, Pucci-style prints, Edna positively glows with happiness.

It’s a wonderful moment. Although most teenage girls and their mothers have fun shopping together, money worries and anxiety about appearances have denied Edna and Tracy that pleasure. “Sometimes I think Edna hasn’t been out of that apartment in years,” Vilanch says.

But why shouldn’t she go where she pleases? She’s a hard worker, a devoted wife, a loving mother. She’s got nothing to feel embarrassed about, and the new-dress number shows us exactly when Edna figures that out for herself. “That’s what ‘Hairspray’ is all about,’ Vilanch says, “accepting other people not in spite of everything but because of who they are.”

With its visual and emotional jelly-bean palette, there’s nothing subtle about “Hairspray” – including the message it strives to deliver. Just in case anybody missed it, though, it also comes through crystal-clear in a song that Seaweed’s mother, a DJ called Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley), sings. “You’ve got to love yourself from the inside-out,” Motormouth reminds the teenagers at a bleak moment, giving them the heart to go on with their campaign.

The big number in “Hairspray” is its high-powered finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” (The song’s title seems to refer to the history of racial integration as well as to music, although the audience, more or less hypnotically raised to its dancing feet, is probably unable to consider that until after the curtain falls.) But Susman thinks that Motormouth’s lyric is the heart of the show, and the reason he predicts a long life for it in years to come.

“Hairspray” has a built-in audience among people with their presets on oldies stations. But thanks to its larger message, Susman thinks they’ll feel very comfortable bringing their children or grandchildren to see the show with them. The Turnblads, it’s true, may be an unusual family – but they’re a happy one. Plenty of us are a lot like them.

When: March 9-21, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard
How much: $29-$75
More info: 314-534-1111 or