HAIRSPRAY (2007)
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
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.



  Viewed at the AMC Empire 25
Photo credit: David James
© 2007 New Line Cinema