Monday, January 7, 2008

can't stop the beat

The other summer hit that I finally had a chance to see on the plane was Hairspray, which I'd been apprehensive about ever since the fiasco that was 2005's The Producers rehash. With Hairspray, I have only the previous experience of John Waters' 1988 film starring Ricki Lake, and no experience with the Broadway musical. Now, having been surprised by the enjoyability of the recent film, I would like to see the stage version of the musical, as I'm sure any version not involving John Travolta would be incredibly entertaining.

The 2007 film lacks almost any shred of John Waters' masterful campy grotesqueness, but instead of making a failed attempt to capture the spirit of the original, the new take moves forward into the bouncy kitsch of movie musicals, with winking social commentary sprinkled throughout. Though I missed the Reefer Madness -style sendup of beatniks, the new music created for the musical is very well-written, and enhanced the experience quite a bit.

Nikki Blonsky was well-cast, filling Ricki Lake's pumps nicely, and even Amanda "All That" Bynes was enjoyable. Given too much room to amuse herself, she's just irritating, but as the repressed Checkerboard Chick she complements Blonsky well. Even though his nose looks like a cat, Zac Efron (to borrow a line from 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, "that's a thing, right?") was all too charming as Link Larkin. I'm pretty much the only person under 21 who's never watched a High School Musical, but I can see why preteen girls and questioning boys tune in for a piece of the Efron action.

Christopher Walken was amusing as ever in Jerry Stiller's old role, who had a much appreciated cameo as Mr. Pinky. I just wish Walken had had room to put on his dancing shoes. Queen Latifah and Brittany Snow turned in serviceable performances, and Michelle Pfieffer is turning out to be an excellent villainess (see Stardust).

Now, on to the troubling presence of Travolta as Edna Turnblad. While I appreciate the one-two punch of including him and Pfieffer as alumni of both installments of the Grease franchise, I am baffled as to why he would be cast in the role made famous by Divine. Travolta's voice is high-pitched and unnerving as it is, and when he affects a low-rent Baltimore drag queen, the result is like Chief Wiggum impersonating Johnny Carson after a helium binge. I think I actually grimaces every time he was onscreen. The point of Divine playing Edna was not that she was in drag, but that she was Divine. I don't know who would have been a better casting choice, but Travolta was an unwanted blemish on an otherwise enjoyable film.

Finally, the song "You Can't Stop the Beat: was an excellent set piece, and a great one for musical fans to hum after the movie is over.

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