Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2008
Cry-Baby Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger. Based on the Universal Pictures film written and directed by John Waters. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Choreographed by Rob Ashford. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair design by Tom Watsono. Make-up design by Randy Houston Mercer. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Cast: James Snyder, Elizabeth Stanley, Chester Gregory II, Christopher J. Hanke, Alli Mauzey, Carly Jibson, Lacey Kohl, Richard Poe, Tory Ross, Cameron Adams, Ashley Amber, Nick Blaemire, Michael Buchanan, Eric L. Christian, Colin Cunliffe, Lisa Gajda, Stacey Todd Holt, Michael D. Jablonski, Laura Jordan, Brendan King, Marty Lawson, Spencer Liff, Courtney Laine, Mazza Mayumi, Miguel Eric Sciotto, Ryan Silverman, Peter Matthew Smith, Allison Spratt, Charlie Sutton, and Harriet Harris.
Regardless, a second Valentine to Baltimore has opened while another is still going strong and grinning brightly nearly six years after opening. The first, playing at the Neil Simon, is called Hairspray, and is based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. The new one, Cry-Baby, just opened at the Marquis and is based on a Waters film from 1990. But the Baltimore and social changes it documents make for a much less merry land this time around.
This is hardly surprising. The Cry-Baby movie has shorter-lasting hold than its predecessor, more notable for a dynamic star performance from a young Johnny Depp than its watered-down story about 1950s class cold-warfare. It looked positively quaint next to Hairspray's harder-edged, 1960s-set racial consciousness. So too does the go-for-broke Broadway Cry-Baby, which originated at the La Jolla Playhouse, want for the candy-colored audaciousness of its stage forerunner.
Unflattering comparisons between the two are unavoidable: The book (by Hairspray librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) is less focused on character and more desperate for laughs. The score is just as ruthlessly derivative of the pop of its target decade, but Broadway newcomers Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum (an executive producer for The Daily Show) can't spin melodies or lyrics as memorably as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman could. The direction (by Mark Brokaw) and performances, including a relatively glowing turn from Harriet Harris, can't replicate the unique chemistry the 2002 Broadway hit made look so effortless.
Only Rob Ashford's choreography meets, and in many ways surpasses, what was seen in the previous show. Combining a plethora of period steps with the kinetic thrust of contemporary Pilates, the dances swirl and explode with the unpredictability of a string of firecrackers. So filling the stage with motion that it's often difficult to know where to look first, Ashford makes the youth of Baltimore a frenzied bunch who can (and do) communicate anything they want with their flying feet, swiveling hips, and frenetic hands.
Unfortunately, paying too much attention to what they're saying is guaranteed to counteract their gyrations' caffeinating effects. O'Donnell and Meehan have fallen headfirst into "retread" mode, which only exacerbates the pre-existing problem of the source movie's reliance on telling Hairspray's same story in a less-original way.
At least he's got plenty of assistance from his gang. They include his perennially pregnant cousin, Pepper (Carly Jibson); the buxom ditz Wanda (Lacey Kohl); "Hatchet Face," aka Mona (Tory Ross), who takes pride in being as ugly outside as she is inside; and the James Brown-like Dupree (Chester Gregory II), who's the emcee at the group's out-of-the-way hangout, the Turkey Point Pavilion. Of course, Allison finds all of them quite a bit more vibrant than the folks at her local country club. As she and Cry-Baby try to make their romance happen, all the expected journeys follow: through the prison system (why, Cry-Baby must have burned down the Pavilion!), to redemption for everyone, and smack dab into the full-cast finale that recognizes a happy ending is always around the corner.
But with no hint of urgency behind these paper-thin concerns, all the happily-ever-afters might as well be to-be-continueds. The songs never delve beneath the grooves of the LPs they've been lifted from, their lyrics more ironically aware than your average 1954 teen-angst ballad but hardly more dramatically astute. ("I'm infected! / With these feelings that you injected!" Allison sings after meeting Cry-Baby at the Anti-Polio Picnic; she suffers from "Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe - Woe-oh-oh-oh-ooooh" when separated from him later.)
Numbers only make a lasting impression when Ashford gets his hands on them, with his version of a jailbreak riot being the most memorable (and inventive) dance moment of the season. Brokaw seldom gets that far, his staging suggesting stop-motion animation played back at double speed, and always more breathless than breathtaking (and not in a good way). Scott Pask's forced-perspective, diorama-style sets, Catherine Zuber's costumes, and Howell Binkley's lights only amplify the cartoony atmosphere that keeps everything from feeling real.
Only Harris finds stakes in her character, making a potentially stolid (and stereotypical) patrician into someone deeply terrified of losing her granddaughter, which makes Mrs. Vernon Williams an unusually well-rounded "villain." Jibson is trailer trash perfectly personified; Mauzey manages to wring far more laughs than should be possible from the young girl who's crazy for Cry-Baby - as well as just plain crazy. Snyder and Stanley, while singing superbly, always give the sense of being in on their jokes; he as a sensitive James Dean wannabe, she as an ingenue trapped in era hurtling away from innocence.
She's destined to survive, though. In all good musical comedies - to say nothing of Waters's movies - clinging to the old ways is the surest route to obsolescence. On the most basic of terms, Cry-Baby succeeds as a fleeting amusement, even if it lags behind Xanadu and In the Heights, two other new musicals this season that aim slightly higher and hit more accurately. True, Cry-Baby isn't trying to be like them, and just as well. But one can't help but wonder why it doesn't also dare to stray farther from the buzz of Hairspray's beehive.