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'Hairspray' plays the Hollywood Bowl: An on-the-scene report

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Hairspray
Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Since opening on Broadway in 2002, the infinitely fun musical Hairspray has been the theater world’s big, splashy guilty pleasure. Basically, it boils down to effervescent production numbers, a huge emphasis on the ridiculousness of the ’60s, and a gooey moral center about personal and racial acceptance camouflaged by the fun of wigs, costumes, and a healthy dose of drag. With that combination, really, how can you go wrong? It rarely — if ever — disappoints, and that was certainly the case in its flashy opening at Los Angeles’ iconic Hollywood Bowl last night. Even in a super-sized amphitheater of 17,000-plus seats, Hairspray managed to hold.

But sure, because it’s the Hollywood Bowl — a ginormous outdoor theater nestled in the Hollywood Hills — the production wasn’t exactly always perfectly coiffed: Mics intermittently cut in and out, the volume of the orchestrations was off at moments, and most of the huge audience — especially those further back — probably had to watch everything go down on the huge, somewhat distracting jumbo-screens flanking the stage. But that’s all forgivable under the circumstances. The decision to put Hairspray on at the Bowl was a stroke of genius: This near exact duplicate of the Broadway show is just the kind of thing that thrives in a big, Tinseltown production at Los Angeles’ favorite outdoor theater. Believe me, the show’s wigs were likely still very visible at the back of the venue.

Amongst a starry cast that included the likes of Corbin Bleu, Drew Carey, Diana DeGarmo, Nick Jonas, and John Stamos, original Broadway cast members and Tony winners Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein led the way as Tracy and Edna Turnblad, respectively. There’s simply no point in dissecting their performances much — since they originated them, the pair knows these roles better than anyone and they delivered every line and dance move just as if it were still 2002 and they were still in front of Tony voters.

But I will say these few things: It’s amazing that Winokur is still doing the Peyton Place After Midnight dance move that Seaweed (Corbin Bleu) taught her with the same verve that she originally did, considering that 10 years have passed. Fierstein, of course, managed to steal most of the show: Anything uttered with his signature raspy voice was like crack to the crowds. One of his biggest laughs came at the end of the fan-favorite song “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” which he sang alongside on-stage hubby Drew Carey, who, surprisingly, can keep up in the warbling department. Near the end of the number, as the pair entered their final embrace, the crowd heard Harvey simply say: “This can be yours if the price is right.” Considering Carey’s hosting gig, it was a pitch-perfect add to the show.

The rest of the cast didn’t disappoint, for the most part. American Idol alum DeGarmo, who played Penny Pingleton for a stint on Broadway, once again killed it, especially during her roiling portion of “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Stamos was the perfect pick, image-wise, for the cheesy dance-show host Corny Collins, even if he couldn’t quite keep up in the singing department. (Which isn’t really a shocker, when you factor in his similar spin Albert in Broadway’s Bye Bye Birdie a couple years ago.) The teen idols — Bleu as Seaweed and Jonas as heartthrob Link Larkin — kept the teen crowds closer to the top of the hill screaming all night, which was a nice touch for the whole spectacle, especially considering the show’s fascination with teen idols. Every time one of the pair appeared on the jumbo screens, the girls went wild with blood-curdling cries. The Hairspray producers couldn’t have planned it better, honestly.

Considering the environment, the bigger songs played best, of course. “Welcome to the ’60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” with all the dancers and spectacle, were standouts, while smaller-staged numbers like “It Takes Two” suffering somewhat from being swallowed in the vastness of the Bowl’s stage.

Two bookend touches made the Hairspray experience at the Bowl nearly perfect: The show opened with the cast taking the stage for a fully Hairspray-ified rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the show ended with an encore of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” that found dozens of teenagers in colored t-shirts filling the aisles of the theater, fully singing and dancing along. Much of the crowd quickly followed suit, of course.

Tanner on Twitter: @EWTanStransky