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‘Hairspray’ an irrepressible charmer

“Hairspray” is an irrepressible dose of early-1960s Americana and is a musical that isn't afraid to be a musical.
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On stage, “Hairspray” was an exuberant but overlong musical: a cute idea stretched to two and a half hours, plus intermission.

On film, running several minutes under two hours, “Hairspray” seems just right: an irrepressible dose of early-1960s Americana that turns out to be a shot in the arm for the careers of John Travolta, James Marsden, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah and newcomer Nikki Blonsky.

Unlike, say, “Dreamgirls,” this is a musical that isn’t afraid to be a musical. It embraces the form without apologizing for its conventions. The actors sing out loud and dance in the streets, performing in locations that are not necessarily associated with show biz. They get away with it partly because they’re confident they can.

The director-choreographer, Adam Shankman, kicks off the movie with an aerial view of a toy version of Baltimore that does for the Maryland metropolis what the opening of “West Side Story” did for New York. When Blonsky launches into her first number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” she’s as impossible to resist as Julie Andrews mounting a hilltop to sing about the sound of music.

“Hairspray” began, like “Little Shop of Horrors,” as a little shoestring-budget movie that inspired a group of its fans to rethink it in musical-comedy terms. Even in its original 96-minute form, John Waters’ 1988 “Hairspray” seemed a little threadbare, perhaps because its storyline never generated much momentum.

It was primarily a nostalgia piece, celebrating television dance-party shows (and rock music) from the early 1960s, though the central plot twist had an anti-nostalgic undercurrent. Segregation was still in effect on some of these “American Bandstand” wannabes, blacks could be quarantined on a once-a-month “Negro Day,” and the giddy atmosphere was poisoned.

In all its forms, “Hairspray” is about the radicalization of Tracy Turnblad, a dance-crazed Baltimore teenager who is mocked for her chubbiness, who thinks nothing of swimming in an integrated pool, and whose eyes are opened to the bigotry that permeates the media in 1962.

While the role made a celebrity of Ricki Lake nearly 20 years ago, Blonsky quickly makes it her own, suggesting that Tracy’s longing for social justice is inextricably part of her personality. She’s made to shatter boundaries, whether she’s trying to retire “Negro Day,” marching for civil rights or falling for a popular dancer who is forced to respond to the moral challenge she represents.

Originally played by the late Divine, Nikki’s even chubbier mother, Edna, became a cross-dressing breakthrough for Harvey Fierstein on Broadway — and it may do something similar for Travolta. Marsden is a revelation as Corny Collins, the progressive star of the dance show; he’s like Dick Clark on speed.

Pfeiffer is bewitching as the racist villain, Velma Von Tussle, while Walken, cast as Nikki’s eccentric father, charms his way through a couple of song-and-dance episodes. Even fans of Ruth Brown’s Motormouth Maybelle (from the 1988 film) are likely to be impressed by Latifah’s smoothly energetic handling of the role.

The script by Leslie Dixon (“Mrs. Doubtfire”) skillfully blends Waters’ original screenplay with the Tony-winning Broadway rewrite. All three versions are worth seeing, but this $75 million remake may be the most spirited and the most lovable.