This past spring I was fortunate enough to catch a 17-minute preview of the Hollywood version of the Broadway version of the 1988 John Waters original, Hairspray. Having never seen either previous incarnation, I had no idea what to expect and walked out of the preview feeling astonishingly upbeat.
Sure John Travolta in padded drag was strange, but the music was swinging, the vibe was electric and the humor was infectious. Suddenly I understood, and surprisingly agreed with, all the pre-buzz comparisons to Grease.
My, what a difference ninety minutes or so can make.
It is 1962 Baltimore, and young teenage Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is infatuated with the Corny Collins (James Marsden) song and dance television show; a local American Bandstand-type variety program.
Tracy, along with friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), spends her entire day waiting for the afternoon program to come on so that she can hop to the newest dance moves and swoon to the site of heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron).
Tracy auditions to be a new dancer for the show, but station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) cruelly takes issue with Tracys weight and turns her down, which is precisely what Tracys mom, Edna (Travolta, in drag) feared would happen.
But when Tracy befriends a charming young black man named Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and displays some of his fresh new dance moves for Corny, she begins to defy the odds and prove, even to her mother, that neither size nor color matter in a world that is quickly changing.
From the moment Nikki Blonsky pops out of Tracys bed and begins belting out “Good Morning Baltimore,” you know she is the star, our hero. Her innocence and exuberance, so vital in any musical, are enough to get you bouncing and finger-snapping to every one of her songs. With sing-song aplomb she effortlessly introduces us to her world and (modern) outlooks on integration and acceptance.
Through her we meet Seaweed, who Kelley makes into a pitch-perfect bad boy hero that brings Bynes otherwise doofus Penny to hedonistic life. Marsden turns out to be a fantastic swinging sixties television singer and host, and Christopher Walken, as Tracys toe-tapping dad, is a true treat.
John Travolta, however, is not a treat. No matter how enjoyable his performance may be, nothing glosses over the fact that you are watching a fat-suited Travolta in drag sing in a high-pitched Balmore accented voice that is freakishly similar to pal, Kirstie Alley. Sure it is funny for a scene or two, and somewhat in line with the roles history, but the nod-and-wink joke quickly erodes and all you are left with is the jarring presence of Travolta in a fat suit. A show stopper in the worst way.
Sowing further discord among the films otherwise high notes is director Adam Shankmans inability to integrate the storys more serious tones. Tracys identifiable teenage troubles abruptly shifts to turbulent sixties social commentary on brutality, injustice and elitism. Worthy subjects, but ones dramatically overplayed by Shankman. Under his eye even the most sobering of song.
By the time Hairspray focuses back on Tracy and her bid to gain acceptance, the heavy-handed preaching has taken its toll. Despite Blonsky and her amazing co-stars talents, Tracys voice seems muddled; less identifiable than it was during that introductory burst of song; less accessible than that lean 17-minute cut that, for a moment, made one forget about hopeless devotions to summer nights.
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