David James
Musical ,
July 20, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Oh, the wonders of the modern female fat suit. Many male performers — from Robin Williams to Eddie Murphy — have glued on latex or silicone to bulk up and switch sexes in the name of comedy. Now it’s John Travolta’s turn to pack on the pounds to play Edna Turnblad, a zaftig early-1960s Baltimore housewife whose plump teen daughter, Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), is determined to integrate a local TV dance show, thus striking a blow for big girls and black folks simultaneously.

Travolta has especially big pumps to fill, since he’s had a couple of larger-than-life predecessors. Drag iconoclast Divine played Edna in John Waters’ landmark 1988 film comedy, and Harvey Fierstein anchored the hit 2002 Broadway musicalization. This flick is modeled after the stage show, not Waters’ original, and marks the 53-year-old Travolta’s first singing role since 1978’s Grease. He took it after turning down movie musicals for years, including the part Richard Gere played in Chicago. Why the holdout? ”I always said the best parts in musicals are women’s parts,” he told EW at the recent ShoWest convention in Las Vegas.

The filmmakers compounded the Grease connection by coaxing Grease 2 star Michelle Pfeiffer to play nefarious anti-integrationist Velma Von Tussle. ”It always surprises me just how bad a shape my voice gets into,” says Pfeiffer, who gets to sing ”Miss Baltimore Crabs,” a beauty-pageant ode. ”But I feel like I understand the instrument more now.” Though Pfeiffer worried that Velma was too shrewish, she says she trusted director Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House) to keep Velma sympathetic, not just a foil for nicer characters like Edna’s husband, Wilbur (Christopher Walken), and record-shop proprietress Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah).

Of course, they could all wind up overshadowed by the film’s would-be Jennifer Hudson: Blonsky, who was working at a Cold Stone Creamery on Long Island before winning the part of Tracy in an open audition. Says the director of his 18-year-old leading lady, who sings sublimely, ”She’s the reason this whole movie works.” (July 20)

117 minutes
New Line Cinema
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