While the majority of Gauchos packed into clubs with titles like “La Boom” and “Papas and Beer” over Spring Break, Artsweek took a turn for all things geeky and visited every over-the-top theater major’s avenue of dreams: Broadway. Not to mention Artsweek’s mom scored — ahem – second-row seats for the John Waters-based “Hairspray” and current critical darling “Chicago.” Even more strange was wandering back to the hotel, flipping on the telly and watching starlet RenŽe Zellweger and posse gorge themselves on the tiny gold statuettes, leaving creepily mustached Daniel Day-Lewis and monobrowed Salma Hayek to nibble on gift basket scraps.

What is it about a musical that remains so damn entertaining? As self-confessed quasi-drama nerds, the “return of the musical” – which this year’s Oscar-gobbler “Chicago” and last year’s “Moulin Rouge” has prompted – gets Artsweek a little giddy. Even still, seeing the real deal being performed with three-dimensional characters, complete with costumes, choreography and nonrecorded singing voices simply cannot be topped. Hollywood seems to have successfully bottled portions of what makes a Broadway musical so endearing and time-tested, but has yet to capture the essence of a stand-up-in-your seat-and-shout musical experience.

First on the NYC itinerary was the recent phenomenon “Hairspray,” based on cult filmmaker John Waters’ 1988 film of the same name. The film starred a very young and very rotund Ricki Lake as aspiring dancer and social reformer Tracy Turnblad, while legendary drag queen Divine played her even more rotund mother. The story takes viewers into early 1960s Baltimore, where “The Corny Collins Show” allowed teeny-boppers across the city to strut their stuff and possibly become idolized council members. Still, the city is widely segregated, reflected in the show’s solitary monthly “Negro Day.” Armed with a bevy of feisty dance moves, Tracy lands a spot on the show, manages to finagle nemesis Amber von Tussel’s hunky dude, Link, and even stands a chance of forging the first integrated TV show in Baltimore.

It must be said that a level of skepticism is involved in seeing a favorite film or book transformed into a stage production. But in this case, Broadway reigns mighty. Tracy is played by Marissa Jaret Winokur, who might be best remembered as the “you are so busted” girl from “American Beauty,” while gravelly voiced queer icon Harvey Fierstein plays Mrs. Turnblad, effortlessly stealing the entire production.

The sets are truly, well, divine, as they fuse early ’60s Baltimore and Disneyland’s Toontown into a barrage of color, shapes and nostalgic references. The music, created by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” fame, is catchier than hell and carried perfectly by all the floral-printed and beehived performers. Much of Waters’ original material was kept, thankfully, and what changes were made are well suited so that even the most die-hard devotee is still satisfied.

More exciting than the visual presentation created by the theatrical geniuses running Broadway was the sheer glee of having performers singing and dancing within arm’s length. The actual production aspect is obviously more noticeable, as mics are visibly taped to cheeks, faces are thickly painted and one can see backstage frenetics. Drops of sweat fly into the audience (actually onto Artsweek’s mom), and there’s even the possibility of one of the strangest live theater moments occurring: eye contact. It is in this moment that the richly unique experience of live theater is bottled up, unable to be duplicated by the camera’s lens.

Fierstein undoubtedly steals the show with more comedic timing than Chris Rock and Robin Williams combined. Maybe it’s that he’s draped head to toe in sequined ball gowns, but either way the man is born for the stage. Even with a three-foot beehive atop his head, Fierstein flutters across the stage with the best of his twenty-something castmates.

The play’s grand finale is truly one of the greatest showstoppers to have graced a stage, with confetti and eye candy to spare. After a standing ovation, Fierstein gave an impassioned plea to the audience in support of “Broadway Cares,” an organization supporting those with HIV and AIDS. When exiting the theater, cast members stood with chipper smiles, holding collection tins and accepting congratulations.

Perhaps one of the most genuine Broadway moments came after the show when audience members waited outside the theater’s stage door for their favorite actors to emerge, sans face paint and wigs. Hearing the giddiness of younger, aspiring actors gush about the show to each other, one feels the sense of the theater’s tangibility. Each time the door flings open and a face appears, the huddling crowd peers over each other and thrusts playbills and pens forward. For the actors, it feels like one of those genuine “star” moments every eighth-grade Sandra Dee or Juliet fantasizes about.

Fierstein and posse exited, dutifully greeting fans and signing autographs like the best Brads and Jennifers, reminding everyone why Broadway remains so timeless in its appeal. Dressed in jackets and jeans like those gathered to await them, the actors were not of an untouchable strata of Hollywood nonhumans, but seemingly normal people with less than ordinary jobs.

Next stop: “Chicago”. Again, stage proximity remained a vital element in the overall theater experience, and definitely in this sizzling production. The performers were nothing like their film counterparts, while the visuals were the definition of sparse. Still, the power of this musical lies in its unique plotline (rooting for murderers and adulterers) and undeniably amazing songs. It’s a little hard, having seen the film before the musical, to understand the debates launched over film director Rob Marshall’s ability to effectively transport the stage legend to the silver screen.

The production lacks any sort of set, and instead places a stacked rectangular box with several levels that the orchestra fits snugly into. The sides of the stage are lined with chairs, where the dancers sit between numbers and casually sing along. Rather than any costumes, the characters all seem to have been told to simply, “wear black,” and each plucked a piece of clothing from home to wear on stage. Even still, there are the trademark Fosse bowler hats plopped on the male dancers’ domes.

Murderess and aspiring celebrity Roxie Hart is played by Belle Calaway, who erases much of the knock-kneed innocence in Zellweger’s performance and infuses just the right dose of spitefulness. Her vengeful counterpart Velma is also a far cry from Catherine Zeta-Jones’ portrayal, but nails the desperation and egomania that defines the character. Both have positively stunning voices and command the stage with little more than a spotlight and a handful of dancers to distract the audience.

Performers writhe and wriggle across the stage floor, orchestra box and even up the walls while perched atop towering ladders. Their bodies are, to say the least, apparently sculpted from the same chunk of marble as Michelangelo’s David and have few qualms about showing as many square inches of skin as are legal in New York City. The influence of original director and co-author Bob Fosse is felt in every second of the production, particularly when the lights catch nothing but a silhouetted figure elegantly poised with an outstretched cigarette curling smoke around it.

Admittedly, Artsweek sort of liked the costumes, elaborate sets and fast-paced frenetics of Marshall’s screen version. But unlike “Hairspray,” this performance relies very little on the visual spectacular and entirely on its performers and story for overall impact. Although there were few doubts whether the show would live up to its hype, it deservedly rests on the mantle of all-time theatrical legends, as if the truckload of Tony and Drama Desk Awards wasn’t proof enough.

Cozied up to the television, Artsweek and mom watched Marshall’s “Chicago” rope in award after award at the Academy Awards, and couldn’t help but feel a little, well, special for having just seen the live version but a few hours earlier. Sure, the movie was snazzy beyond belief and managed to pull off what many had hoped Luhrmann’s fantastical “Moulin Rouge” did not. It could not, however, package that, well, je ne sais quoi that defines the Broadway experience, or any live theater experience for that matter. In spite of the many corny clichŽs attached to it, live theater is utterly awe-inspiring when nailed on the head. Though Artsweek’s brightest moment basking in the spotlight’s glow was sadly as the fire truck in a middle school production of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a common drama-nerd alliance was forged with those willing to throw themselves on stage, sing their heart out, bow graciously and do it all again the next night.