adaptation of the award-winning 2002 Broadway musical that was based on a 1988 film of the same name written and directed by John Waters? To be honest, when the first film came out, I was surprised by it, mostly because it seemed relatively tame in comparison with some of Waters' other features. It WAS subversive but in a family-oriented sort of way.
The idea of turning the film into a Broadway musical escaped me. I was given a copy of the Original Broadway Cast recording and my first thoughts on the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score were "Gee, this sounds like pastiche of the music from that era." Well, no duh. That was the point and over time and repeated listens, I began to develop an appreciation for the score. Then came the movie of the musical that was based on a movie.
The big question mark was the casting of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, the role originated by the divine Divine and originated on stage by the inimitable Harvey Fierstein. How could Travolta possibly follow these icons? The short answer is by being even more subversive. Instead of playing Edna as a man dressed in drag playing a woman, Travolta actually essays a middle-aged, middle-class Baltimore housewife. It's a very risky take on the role and one that will probably divide audiences and critics. I'll admit that it took a few minutes for me to catch on to what the actor was doing: his first appearance, delivering his lines in a bleating Baltimore accent are jarring. But then, slowly but surely, Edna emerges as a sort of damaged soul. In Travolta's characterization, she's not the powerhouse that Divine or Fierstein were, but she does emerge as a figure of sympathy. When, egged on by her daughter Tracy (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), Edna leaves her apartment for the first time in a decade (in a number called "Welcome to the '60s"), she begins to come fully alive. Later, there's a wonderful love duet with her husband Wilbur (Christopher Walken) called "(You're) Timeless to Me" and by this point you practically forget that it's John Travolta under the fat suit.
Director Adam Shankman and screenwriter Leslie Dixon have adapted the stage musical with flair and verve. HAIRSPRAY, for those who don't know the story, is about acceptance. Set in 1962, it's the story of zaftig teen Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky) who wants nothing more than to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a locally produced dance program not unlike American Bandstand.
Standing in Tracy's way, though, is the racist (and lookist) station manager Velma Von Tussle Michelle Pfeiffer who combines sex appeal with being nasty like no else can -- plus she reminds audiences she's got a damned fine set of pipes in her big number "Miss Baltimore Crabs"). Velma's equally heinous daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) is the star dance on The Corny Collins Show and expects to be named Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962. When Tracy unexpected lands a spot on the show, though, she emerges as Amber's biggest rival -- especially for the affections of the resident heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Effron).
Waters' original and the stage version by Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell were both a sort of fractured fairy tale: the overweight girl achieves all her dreams from landing the guy she loves to achieving racial integration on TV when "Negroes" and "whites" are allowed to dance together.
Shankman, a former dancer, directs and choreographs the action in HAIRSPRAY and he doesn't stoop to trying to find a hook to pull audiences in. From its opening, in which Tracy sings her upbeat anthem ("Good Morning, Baltimore"), the audience knows this is going to be a throwback to the sort of movie musicals that were made in the 1950s and 60s. With few exceptions, the musical numbers are not presented as if they were being performed on a stage as they were in CHICAGO or DREAMGIRLS; Instead, people burst out in song -- and the audience -- at least the preview one with whom I saw the film -- accepted it. In fact, almost everything about HAIRSPRAY has a deceptively simple look.
Shankman's choreography has a seemingly easy and natural flow -- but the moves are deceptively difficult. He has found a way to pay tribute to the period dances yet has added 21st-century touches that result in pulsating and wonderfully staged numbers.
The director-choreographer also has cast the film perfectly. In addition to the aforementioned cast, Queen Latifah appears as Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the once-a-month "Negro Day." Elijah Kelly makes a stellar debut as her son Seaweed and Taylor Parks shines as her daughter Little Inez. James Marsden does a perfect turn as Corny Collins. While Amanda Bynes doesn't quite have the verve of Kerry Butler who originated the role on stage, she is fine as Penny Pingleton, Tracy's best friend. Allison Janney has little more than a glorified cameo as Penny's overly religious mother. Look for real cameos from Jerry Stiller (who played Wilbur in the original), director John Waters (in the opening number), and Ricki Lake (Tracy in the 1988 movie), director Adam Shankman, composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman as talent agents, and assistant choreographer Anne "Mama" Fletcher as the school nurse. If you stay for the credits, you'll get to hear a cut song, "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," performed by the three actresses who have played Tracy -- Blonsky, Tony-winner Marissa Jaret Winokur and Lake.
The changes that the filmmakers have made keep the material running at a brisk pace and the fizzy, upbeat score and brilliant performances make HAIRSPRAY a welcome treat in a summer of sequels. Along with the indie gem ONCE, this is one of the best movie musicals in recent times and it only gets better on repeated viewings.
Rating: A- MPAA Rating: PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking Running time: 107 mins.