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Period Musical Scores

From screen to Tony Award-winning musical and now back to the big screen, Hairspray, directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Bringing Down the House, The Wedding Planner), is everything fans expect a musical to be. It’s bright, it’s cheerful, and features a feelgood message about following your dreams and racial tolerance. Like the best Hollywood musicals, it will leave you humming a song or two and vividly remembering every dance move long moments after leaving the movie theater. Minus a woefully miscast John Travolta in drag, there’s nary a misstep in a triumphant return of an unjustly neglected genre that’s seen a much-needed resurgence.

It’s 1962 and Baltimore native Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of becoming a regular dancer on a local television show, the Corny Collins Show. Her best friend, the lollipop-obsessed Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), doesn’t have a dream of her own as much as shares Tracy’s dream. Collins (James Marsden), a Dick Clark-style host, hopes to integrate his show. For the time being, though, the ambitious station manager and former beauty queen, Velma Von Tussel (Michelle Pfeiffer), only allows African Americans to appear on one half of the dance floor during the weekly “Negro Day” co-hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Velma also hopes her daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), wins the upcoming Miss Hairspray contest. However, Amber has eyes only for local boy Link Larkin (Zac Efron). But so does Tracy.

At home, Tracy’s decision to audition for a spot on the Corny Collins Show is met with reluctance from her stay-at-home-laundress-mom, Edna (John Travolta). Edna is worried that Tracy’s short stature and unconventional looks will lead to the first of many disappointments. Tracey’s novelty-store-owning-father, Wilbur (Christopher Walken), disagrees and counsels Tracey to follow her dreams. With the help of some dance moves she picked up in detention from Maybelle’s son, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Elijah Kelley), Tracy beats the odds and wins a spot as a dancer on the show. Detention time with Seaweed and his friends also has raised Tracy’s awareness of the injustices of segregation. Tracy ultimately decides it’s time to shake things up in the name of tolerance of and equality. But Velma and Amber stand in Tracey’s way.

Here’s a short story about John Travolta in drag: no. Here’s another short story about John Travolta in drag: why? If there’s anything that repeatedly brings Hairspray down, it’s John Travolta in drag. To be fair, the drag-wearing Travolta is only cringe inducing the first few times he’s on screen. By the fourth time Edna appears, indifference begins to set in and by the seventh or eighth time, Travolta is sharing screen time with the far more graceful Walken. Divine (a.k.a. Harris Milstead) first essayed Edna in 1988. Fourteen years later, Harvey Fierstein appeared as Edna in the Broadway musical. So actor-in-drag as Edna is something of a tradition. But Travolta was miscast from the get go. Lost in makeup appliances and thirty pounds of rubber, Travolta is far from convincing.

But we’ve spent too much time on Edna/John Travolta as it is. Hairspray belongs to Tracy, and the supporting group of players. At least there, the film's producers didn’t make any major or minor missteps. In fact, outside of Travolta and, sadly, Christopher Walken who's too old for the role of Tracey’s father and often wears noticeable dabs of rouge and lipstick to make him look youthful, everyone else is dead on. Blonsky is never less than terrific, bringing passion and enthusiasm to what could be a career-making role. Amanda Bynes delivers a few choice lines with the impeccable comic timing she’s honed on television. Usually a bland, inexpressive performer, James Marsden brings more energy here than in anything he’s done before. He can dance too.

Still, if you can bring yourself to overlook Travolta’s ill-conceived, badly executed performance (and, frankly, that’s a big “if”), there’s much to like in Hairspray. With catchy, period-perfect songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, lively dance numbers choreographed by director Adam Shankman, colorful set design by David Gropman, spry camerawork by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli and an uncomplicated story centered on racial tolerance and that whole “inner beauty” thing, Hairspray is about as we’re going to get when it comes to the modern musical.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars