Us Against Who?

While we're at that gender crossing, let's speak of Harvey Fierstein. Under the joke of a low-class mom being a man in drag lies the serious thought that, to battle this tough world, even a woman needs to be manly. Fierstein's sensible choice, presumably with director Jack O'Brien's guidance, is to ignore the biological discrepancy and play the feelings. Hugely padded, with guided-missile bazooms, he's so much bigger in every direction than limber Dick Latessa, who plays his husband, that their colloquies suggest the offstage scene between Jack and the Giantess from Into the Woods. But Fierstein's unfazed; the grotesquery only magnifies his demureness, off which Latessa plays with sparkish delight. Only Fierstein's voice stubbornly refuses to budge from its distinctive monochrome Brooklyn croak.

He doesn't need to sing, though. The cast's loaded with leather-lunged, and occasionally golden-toned, personalities: Matthew Morrison as Winokur's TV heartthrob, Kerry Butler as her meeker cousin, Corey Reynolds as Butler's amiable beau, Linda Hart as the conniving producer, Clarke Thorell as the oily and untrustworthy TV host. The parade of talents is so lengthy that Jackie Hoffman, as a trio of minor malevolences, barely has space to snatch three laughs—almost every moment the leads haven't nailed down has already been swiped by Mary Bond Davis, an artist of such appealing force that her presence emerges even while draped in a huge shag wig, glitter-frame specs, and a character whose first name is Motormouth.

Droll House: Marissa Jaret Winokur and ensemble in Hairspray
photo: Paul Kolnik
Droll House: Marissa Jaret Winokur and ensemble in Hairspray

Details

Hairspray
Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Neil Simon Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street
212-307-4100

The Boys From Syracuse
Book by Nicky Silver, based on George Abbott's original, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
212-719-1300

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Does Hairspray "mean" anything as a social statement? Only this, that liberating agendas are easy to smuggle into the minds of people having a good time. This does no harm; if later on the agenda should crash on the sharp rocks of economic reality, its image stays in the mind. And change comes in due course. As the revival of The Boys From Syracuse demonstrates, even the eternal verities of farce won't convince people who've been deprived of a good time. The roster of acting talents lined up here is nearly as glittery as that in Hairspray, but the results are mostly pallid. Everybody gets in everybody else's way, and they all get in Rodgers and Hart's way; even the vocal arrangements are busy spoiling the melodies before we've heard them through once. Somehow I suspect that such things didn't happen to the show when George Abbott, George Balanchine, Jo Mielziner, Irene Sharaff, and Hans Spialek were involved. I don't insist on an exact reproduction of their work; I just want today's artists to know as much about what they're doing, and to offer the results to us with the same devotion, and take the same pleasure in our response. That was good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for the makers of Hairspray, and if the Roundabout ever comes to realize that we too have a share in the experience, what they do will also be good enough for us.

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