Let’s get one thing clear: there is nothing questionable about heterosexual actor John Travolta clad in a fat suit, dragged up in pink sequins and breathily trilling ‘I’m the cutest chickie that you ever did see!’ There is, however, something awkward and faintly disturbing about watching his Edna Turnblad dance and duet with Christopher Walken’s Mr Turnblad dressed in toreador kitsch. Divine it ain’t. In fact, so peculiarly mannered is Edna’s transformation from chipmunky homebody to liberated blob that it’s quite impossible to forget you’re watching John Travolta in latex and, therefore, to suspend disbelief. Nor is that made any easier by uncertain, sometimes clashing performances from such other big names as Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah and indeed Walken, whose dance skills are criminally underused.
That said, this new ‘Hairspray’ – adapted from the Broadway musical based on the 1988 film – is often great fun. Though not as scabrous, as sharp or even as musically memorable as John Waters’ original, it retains much of his filthy, big-hearted sensibility (he cameos as a happy flasher) and is less deadeningly stagey than that other recent film-of-the-musical-of-the-film, ‘The Producers’. Stepping into Ricki Lake’s pumps as Tracy Turnblad – the tubby teen who takes 1962 Baltimore music TV by storm and nearly sparks a race riot by declaring ‘I wish every day were Negro Day!’ – Nikki Blonsky is unflaggingly chipper as both naive kid chastised for ‘inappropriate hair height’ and indignant civil-rights activist. Throw in plenty of sparky numbers and snarky gags and ‘that chubby Communist girl’ is hard to resist.