- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

Sometimes, producers get lucky and all the film-promoting stars align. Even if “Hairspray” weren’t a peppy movie musical with a good deal of appeal, for example, it’d probably still make a crater-sized dent at the box office.

Forget its basic selling points for a moment: that it’s building on the success of John Waters‘ 1988 film and the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical it spawned, that it’s got a star-studded cast that includes song-and-dance veteran John Travolta, and that movie musicals seem to be enjoying something of a rebirth.

There are greater things at play — like the movements of great celestial orbs that have more pull than we even realize.

“Hairspray” only stars, like, the ultimate teen dream: Zac Efron. You know, that blue-eyed dreamboat who played the lead in Disney’s “High School Musical,” a full-fledged, steamrolling phenomenon that produced the best selling album of 2006? His drooling fans have nothing better to do this summer than pore over the pages of Tiger Beat magazine, count the days until “HSM 2” (28), and — what’s this? He’s in another movie?

Additionally, the second season of Fox’s popular “So You Think You Can Dance” show gave major exposure to the “Hairspray” dance number “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” which was performed repeatedly by the finalist Donyelle Jones and winner Benji Schwimmer. A crowd and judges’ favorite, it further teased the upcoming cinematic production for a new audience.

So, does this new “Hairspray” have more to offer than a set of really happy marketing coincidences?

It sure does.

From the opening scenes featuring familiarly heavyset Tracy Turnblad (delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky) serenading the rat-infested streets of Baltimore, the musical presents itself as a zippier, cheekier and music-centric update on Mr. Waters‘ work. This is not to say that it’s an improvement, but more on that later.

For those less familiar with the plot, Tracy’s life pretty much revolves around “The Corny Collins Show,” a dance program she grooves along to religiously after school each day.

When the show has open auditions, Tracy’s all over it with her bestest bud, Penny Pingleton (ebullient Amanda Bynes), in tow. Petite blond “Corny Collins” celeb Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her witchy, station-manager mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), don’t take kindly to full-figured strangers, however — particularly ones who take a liking to the star’s main man, in this case Link Larkin (Mr. Efron).

When Tracy gets cut, she nurses her wounds at home with mom (Mr. Travolta, making his musical comeback inside the body of a 400-pound woman) and dad (perpetually offbeat Christopher Walken) and in detention, where she meets a bunch of black students with super sweet moves. Penny’s future love interest, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley and his powerful pipes), is one such individual, and he becomes a fast friend of Tracy’s.

Like our plump protagonist, blacks don’t exactly fit the mold that the Von Tussles created for the “Corny Collins” show either, which is why there is only a once-monthly “Negro Day,” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah).

When Tracy finally gets on-air and begins winning over fans (and Link), she finds she can’t ignore the injustices she’s suffered, as well as the ones that the soon-to-be-axed Maybelle and her crew have endured.

“Hairspray” maintains a fast pace throughout with its steady stream of glitzy musical numbers. The dancing is particularly pleasurable — no surprise given the fact that the movie was directed by the person who choreographed it: Adam Shankman.

The film also teems with neat visual tidbits like a photograph of Tracy that sings along with a real, live Link, and clouds of hairspray that look so thick you could choke.

The drawback to all this gloss, though, is that some of Mr. Waters‘ dramatic tension — OK, a lot of it — is lost. For one, Link’s amorous feelings for Tracy are a little hard to believe, and on a larger scale, race is reduced from a time bomb to a series of punch lines. The humor might be juicy (Miss Bynes gets a particularly saucy line about “chocolate” that’ll milk a lot of laughs), but does Queen Latifah really have to sing something as trite as “The night is black as my skin”?

“Hairspray” doesn’t make any great statements, ultimately, but it’s a warm, colorful confection that should be more than palatable to audiences, whether they come for Mr. Travolta or Mr. Efron.

***

TITLE: “Hairspray”

RATING: PG (some language, suggestive content and teen smoking)

CREDITS: Directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman. Written by Leslie Dixon based on the Broadway musical’s book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman.

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

WEB SITE: www.hairspraymovie.com MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS