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Big Hair, Bouncy Moves, Tons of Bawlmer Charm

Tracy Turnblad is round of face, full of figure and a great dancer. As played by Nikki Blonsky, she's the kind of girl who only needs to shellac her hair to be ready to greet the day — with a bouncy chorus of "Good Morning, Baltimore." I did mention it's a musical, no?

On her way to school, Tracy takes crumbs to feed the rats, waves a cheery hello to the neighborhood flasher and hitches a ride on a passing garbage truck. Her world is filled with joy, and never more so than right after school lets out. That's when Tracy and every kid in Charm City turns on the TV to watch The Corny Collins Show — "Brought to you by Ultra Clutch Hair Spray!" — a local dance program that that Tracy would love to try out for. But her equally big-boned mom, Edna, played rather sweetly by John Travolta, urges her to be practical, and think about working at Edna's Occidental Laundry.

Travolta's pretty wonderful as Edna — down-to-earth, vulnerable, and every bit the dancer he was back in his Saturday Night Fever days, as you discover when Tracy and Edna go out for a makeover at their favorite dress shop, Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway. Edna's a big gal, but Travolta lets you see that she was once — and will ever be, in her own mind — a delicate creature. (With slightly wild impulses: Wait till you see her give a Tina Turner shimmy. You really haven't seen Travolta dance 'til you've seen him cut loose in high heels and pink sequins.)

For a star-studded big-budget musical, Hairspray does a nice job of retaining the funky sweetness of the original. Back then, the inventively trashy filmmaker John Waters was having campy fun with early-'60s hair and fashion, and with his cross-dressing hausfrau, but he was also dressing down a certain set of early-'60s attitudes about conformity and racial segregation. The Corny Collins Show is an all-white affair (though its producers do allow for a "Negro Day" once a month). Tracy joins forces with the black kids to protest that state of affairs with what may be musical comedy's most rousing civil rights' march — a driving, gospel-choir-backed finale called "You Can't Stop the Beat."

If anything, this latest version of Hairspray ramps up the social-consciousness stuff, making more of the white kid/black kid dynamics, giving Queen Latifah's Motormouth Maybelle more to do — and more pointed things to say — and turning Michelle Pfeiffer's station manager, Velma von Tussle, into the whitest white-bread face of intolerance ever to be voted Miss Baltimore Crab.

And director Adam Shankman manages to do all that while keeping the show true to itself. Most recent movie musicals have tried to disguise their musicality, as if they find it slightly embarrassing that characters keep breaking into song. Dreamgirls mostly relegated musical numbers to the stage or a recording studio; Chicago confines its songs to its chorus girls' fantasies.

But Hairspray, perhaps because it's all about being unashamed of who you are, makes no apologies about being a musical. It sings and dances to beat the band, and just about dares you not to love it. If you were really determined, you could, I suppose, manage to resist Charm City's charms — but why would you want to try?

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.