How has “Hairspray” sustained itself simultaneously on Broadway and in the
multiplexes as a play and a movie? All the elements add up to high camp.
First, nostalgia. We don’t see musicals like this any more. In the late ‘50s, stage and screen were jumping with such things; a few lines of dialogue, a very few, were punctuated by pretty people bursting into song. No one expected transitions or subtlety. The music came out of the blue. Just dress people up in the clothes of the time (wigs, wigs, and more wigs) and tell them to open their mouths and sing. The sole point was to enjoy the music, the performers, and the happy endings.
Second, the score. It’s terrific. Even without connective tissue, the songs – dozens of them, it seems – tell the whole story in lyrics and mood. No need for a script here; song and dance are the storyline, and they are good.
Third, the actors. A strong score needs good performers, and here they are, by the bushel. Nikki Blonsky’s Tracy Turnblad jumps to life with a grand opening of “Good Morning, Baltimore” which she delivers with such brio that we wonder how the rest of the cast can keep up. They do. Ms. Blonsky is innocently cheerful in the best of ways. Such cheer demands a foil and gets it in Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer). Pfeiffer nails the toxic mother who lives on her past glories and her daughter’s future as a contestant in the “Miss Hairspray” contest. Blonsky and Pfeiffer are a satisfying match-up of victory and defeat.
One of the nicest and most unrealistic things about this movie is that the bad stuff happens only in the dance competition. Off-stage, Tracy goes home to dad Wilbur (Christopher Walken) and mom Edna Turnblad (John Travolta), a mountain of a woman and a reed of a man who are still in love with each other and with their sparkling daughter. Wilbur runs a preposterous joke shop called “The Hardy Har Hut” that pours sight gags onto the screen. Walken’s Wilbur is an endearing and eccentric dad.
The press hype has gone to John Travolta who is fine as Edna Turnblad though not as charming as we want him to be. The temptation is to want him to rip off his fat suit and cut loose on the dance floor. He seems wasted in the role and a bit too prissy. There is an undercurrent of disappointment here in spite of all the good will.
On a crowded dance floor or a Civil Rights march, it is Queen Latifah as Maybelle, who soars above the crowd, standing tall in some glorious, timeless creation of a dress. The young dancers are terrific, the singers too, but the reason it all works as well as it does is Nikki Blonsky who opens things with a blast and sustains the mood. She pulls everyone else up to a high, unembarrassed state of fun.
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