'Hairspray' party still hopping

Those clouds of aerosol wafting off the stage of Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre remain as intoxicating as ever. Despite a nearly full rotation in its cast since opening two years ago, "Hairspray" seems, if anything, more charming on second viewing.

Among the cast's replacements is comedian Michael McKean, following in the gender-bending footsteps of Harvey Fierstein as matriarch Edna Turnblad. Fierstein was a revelation in the role, winning a Tony and lending a world-weary steadiness to the often frenetic show.

McKean -- best known as Lenny Kosnowski from TV's "Laverne & Shirley" -- isn't as good, at least not yet. His performance at a recent show was an uneasy combination of Fierstein mimicry (down to the bullfrog voice) and sitcom-style smugness.

One of Fierstein's primary accomplishments was to make the role's drag element seem incidental. He concocted a fully realized female character to serve as a guide for daughter Tracy, who achieves dance stardom and racial integration in 1960s Baltimore.

McKean, on the other hand, is more a sight gag. He doesn't quite make you forget you're watching a guy in a fat suit and a dress.

That's a problem, especially during "Timeless to Me," his second-act love duet with original cast member Dick Latessa, who plays Edna's husband. Without a believable female on stage, the number becomes pure camp.

Still, McKean has a compassionate presence and it's very possible he'll grow into the role.

At the very least, he's adequate, and that turns out to be good enough for a production that boasts a fabulous Tracy in newcomer Carly Jibson. She's physically quirkier than original star Marissa Jaret Winokur, bouncing around the stage and pulling off some randy moments with heartthrob Link Larkin (Richard H. Blake). And her voice is thicker and more soulful than Winokur's.

But the show's secret weapon is Latessa, whose easygoing talent was once overshadowed by Fierstein. Paired with a less distinctive Edna, he emerges more clearly as the show's heart, the kooky cheerleader who is always around to brandish a lollipop or give a hug when needed.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book, a Tony winner, is economical but relies too heavily on fat jokes that land mostly with thuds -- probably because they seem too mean-spirited for a show so obviously in love with its busty leading women (both Tracy and Edna are on the heavy side).

The Tony-winning score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman impresses more deeply on second listen, convincingly evoking nearly every 1960s musical genre. It compares favorably with that great 1960s-pastiche standard-bearer, "Little Shop of Horrors."

Few closing numbers are as rousing "You Can't Stop the Beat," which features thrilling and gutsy drumming and a chorus that begs to be sung on the way out the theater.

"Hairspray" remains the best party on Broadway.