F life were everything it should be — that is, if life were more like the endearing new musical called "Hairspray" that opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater — your every waking thought would be footnoted by a chorus of backup singers of early 60's vintage. You know, the kind who always come up with helpful bons mots like "ow-oot" and "bop-be-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba," whether the lead singer's heart is breaking or quaking.
Consider the effect that such encouragement has on one Tracy Turnblad of Baltimore, as she walks to school through a landscape that includes a frolicsome gutter rat, the flasher who lives next door and that familiar old derelict with his portable bar stool. Those happy backup voices in her head, engraved by endless spinnings of vinyl in her bedroom, guarantee that her view of the streets is more than rosy: it's hot pink and filled with promises of romance, stardom and the righting of social inequalities.
And, oh, by the way, when Tracy (embodied with trustworthy sincerity by Marissa Jaret Winokur) requires some extra assistance, when she needs to help her agoraphobic mom cut loose and live a little, for example, a Supremes-like trio in dazzling red steps out of a poster and onto the sidewalks to deliver the message personally. Among the advice offered: "The future's got a million roads for you to choose/ But you'll walk a little taller in some high-heel shoes."
And there you have the dewy essence of "Hairspray," which is adapted from John Waters's 1988 movie about rock 'n' roll and race relations and features a captivatingly humane Harvey Fierstein (of "Torch Song Trilogy") in the role created by the drag goddess Divine. If you're not at all taken by the fantasy of the Supremes showing up to bestow a little Motown magic on your bedraggled, overworked mother, then you will probably be in the minority of theatergoers who will not find this musical irresistible. Otherwise, you won't need Ecstasy or any other of those fashionable drugs said to generate warm, fuzzy and benevolent feelings. So what if it's more than a little pushy in its social preaching? Stocked with canny, deliriously tuneful songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and directed by Jack O'Brien with a common touch that stops short of vulgarity, "Hairspray" is as sweet as a show can be without promoting tooth decay.
The buzz on "Hairspray," which is centered on a television disc-jockey show in which white kids dance to black music, has been of the overblown variety that can wind up stinging its creators. It's been touted, for example, as the next "Producers," the multi-Tony-winning Mel Brooks musical.
In truth, "Hairspray" doesn't have the same breathtaking confidence in its powers of invention. There are moments (rare ones) when it seems to lose its comic moorings to drift into repetition, and it definitely overdoes the self-help-style anthems of uplift.
But like "The Producers," "Hairspray" succeeds in recreating the pleasures of the old-fashioned musical comedy without seeming old-fashioned. Think of it, if you insist on such nomenclature, as a post-postmodern musical. It's a work that incorporates elements of arch satire, kitsch and camp — all those elements that ruled pop culture for the past several decades — but without the long customary edges of jadedness and condescension.
Remember all that talk some months back about how the age of irony was over? That diagnosis turned out to be embarrassingly premature. But "Hairspray" offers winning evidence for the charms of an irony-free world, at least for a few hours.
Yes, it is inspired by a film by John Waters, a director whose name became a byword for midnight gross-out movie iconoclasm; yes, it does star a large man in drag (Mr. Fierstein); and yes the show's songs, its broad but witty book (by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) and its eye-tickling look (sets by David Rockwell, costumes by William Ivey Long) are chock full of knowing references to other musicals and pop artifacts.
Mr. Rockwell's delightful pop-up cartoon set, for example, makes allusions to that earlier teenage classic "Bye Bye Birdie!"
Yet for all that, "Hairspray" has none of the wink-wink, isn't-this-a-hoot sensibility that often characterizes pastiche musicals. Mr. O'Brien has made sure that none of his ensemble members — who include the freshest array of young singers and dancers since "Rent" — keep even an inch of distance from their material.
They inhabit their popsicle-colored world without a whit of self-consciousness, which means that even when they're being subversive, they glow like Andy Hardy. When a young man named Seaweed, played by Corey Reynolds, flicks opens a switchblade in a moment of crisis, it's with a Boy Scout spirit of resourcefulness instead of street menace. Hip they may be, with their high ratted hair and light-reflecting clothes. But these kids are too warm to be cool.
The same friendly tone is carried out on every level, but its backbone comes from its music. Mr. Shaiman, the show's composer and its co-lyricist with Mr. Wittman, isn't sending up the music of the age of "American Bandstand." Nor is he simply replicating it. What he's doing instead is taking the infectious hooks and rhythms from period pop and R & B and translating them into the big, bouncy sound that Broadway demands.
As Mr. Shaiman demonstrated in, of all things, the movie version of "South Park," the raunchy cartoon show, he can infuse even the most unlikely projects with genuine Broadway effervescence. (Along with "Moulin Rouge," "South Park" was the best movie musical in years.)
He's got the same wide-eyed infatuation with musical comedy, and its possibilities as a mood lifter, that Mel Brooks revealed in his score for "The Producers." And while the savvy arrangements by Mr. Shaiman, with orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, nod happily to Motown, Elvis, Lesley Gore ballads and standards like "Higher and Higher," the score's appeal isn't nostalgic. It's music that builds its own self-contained, improbably symmetrical world. "You Can't Stop the Beat," its roof-raising finale number, might also be Mr. Shaiman's mantra.