John Travolta has a fairly big bra to fill, not to mention high-heeled shoes. The fortunes of “Hairspray” ride, in part, on the ability of the star to bring the same dynamism to the role of Edna as those who preceded him.
Setting the standard was Divine, probably the world’s best known transvestite, cast in the original film version, released in 1988. When the movie was made into a musical, Harvey Fierstein, talented and gay, who had received a Tony for his portrayal as a transvestite in “Torch Song Trilogy,” took the Edna role and rode it to another Tony.
Travolta will be seen in the role by more people than the combined audience for the first film and the play, thereby setting the benchmark for how the role will be remembered by most.
That’s a shame, because Edna’s gritty tenement dwelling character indirectly sets the stage, helping us understand a culture. Travolta’s fun at times but you know he’s Travolta. If a marquee name is required, why not just cast a woman?
Opening the show, belting out “Good Morning Baltimore” while she dances through the city, Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad serves notice—she’s for real. Cast in the lead after a nationwide search, Nikki was scooping ice cream, paid by the hour, when informed she had won the part.
Tracy, a pudgy white girl, who wins a spot on the “Corny Collins” TV show, sets a new standard among the female participants– hour-glass figured blonds topped off with frozen grins.
The TV program, like many across the US in the early '60s, tapped into the national success of “American Bandstand,” each city having its local teenagers on the dance floor, hosted by their own Dick Clark imitator. With few exceptions, the kids appearing were entirely white, catering to fears of an integrated dance floor, let alone one-on-one interracial dancing.
It’s not enough for Tracy that she overcame impossible odds to land on the show, given her heft. She now wants to integrate it. While in detention at school, she experiences a new joy, dancing with the school’s Negroes, and as her friend comments later, “Once you’ve had Black, you never go back.” Her civil rights battles now extend from the overweight to the over-pigmented.
Appreciative of Tracey’s efforts is Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), host of Negro Day on “Corney Collins.” Her nemesis is Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), station manager and stage mother of Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), who was the star of the show and has now been upstaged by Tracy. While Latifah blesses us with her voice, Pfeiffer brings a vileness that would do credit to the darkness in a Harry Potter movie.
The generic choreography of a large chorus pays only passing deference to some very popular dances of the day, which in themselves help to tell the story. This mass of bodies, synchronized in prosaic movements brings an energy—not the type that makes you want to get up and dance, but an uplifting joyful optimism that eventually becomes infectious.
And in a closing celebration, Travolta is allowed to finally do what he does so well—dance. And for a small moment, we are allowed to be a little brighter in outlook and lighter in heart.
That’s what “Hairspray,” especially once it hit the stage, is supposed to be about really—fun. And it accomplishes that.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by all of Examiner's film critics.