Attention, all who take their flamingos pink and their living desperate: You will not see the Popular Blonde puke on an amusement-park ride in Broadway’s latest hot-ticket fait accompli, Hairspray, a production as tidily competent as John Waters’ 1988 midnight movie was defiantly flabby-shabby. That mood survives only in the stops-out opener, where Tracy Turnblad (Marissa Jaret Winokur — winning, nimble, and likely to revive the term portly pepperpot) rises majestically from bed and resolves to show Kennedy-era Baltimore she can mash potatoes with the skinnies on TV. Rats scramble over her feet. A flasher darts by. It almost feels like home. But by mid-act, all that glorious polyester is coated in polyurethane — a sleek, prefab blockbuster is upon us.
To be fair, it wasn’t Waters’ genial sense of seedy subversion that Hairspray’s producers were after — just the box-office guarantee of camp and nostalgia, coupled with a primal urge to drape Harvey Fierstein in enough drag to wrap the Pont -Neuf. And, thanks to a remarkably strong cast and the Lights! Candy! Action! brio of Jack O’Brien’s direction, that’s sufficient to rattle rafters in distant Maryland — a notable feat, considering Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman’s ruthlessly smooth ’60s-pastiche tunes fade after every button, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s hoofery evokes a very good high school production of Grease. But Fierstein, as Tracy’s mountainous mother, Edna, rises above it all — literally — with a singing voice that sounds like Popeye swallowing a weed-eater — hands down, the most oddly charming noise ever made by a human being. He and Winoker have the combined stage presence and body mass of the entire Cirque du Soleil.
So why saddle these juggernauts with tiresome, Lifetime-standard body-image issues? At its plump bottom, Hairspray is supposed to be about what happens when the fat girl is on top — arbitrarily and without apology. Waters took that for granted 14 years ago; today, it apparently needs explaining. Racial strife, too, was simply part of his 2-D Baltimore backdrop; today, we get an 11th-hour ”we shall overcome” spiritual, which, in a show that exults in the line ”the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” is like inviting a rabbi onstage to say Kaddish after ”Springtime for Hitler.” There’s only one treatment for such generic primness: a remount in glorious Odorama. But even that’s no cure — scratch this show and what you sniff is New Car Smell.