nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 25, 2008
The real stars of Cry-Baby, the new musical based on John Waters's 1990 film of the same title, are choreographer Rob Ashford and his talented squad of dancers, especially three young men—Spencer Liff, Marty Lawson, and Charlie Sutton—whose smoldering looks, sexy moves, and thrilling high kicks deliver jolts of electricity at frequent intervals throughout the show. We haven't had a new musical on Broadway with this much dancing in a while—and certainly not one where the dancing, more than the singing or the dialogue, supplies so much of the style and energy of the show. There's a prison sequence that's being talked about quite a bit, which climaxes with a group of men attaching license plates to their shoes and doing some noisy, edgy tapping (this comes just before the title character makes his escape). This leads into a balletic sequence that's all about release, freedom, letting loose, letting go, getting out: it made me think of "I've Got a Lot of Livin' to Do" from Bye Bye Birdie—but performed by the bad kids who really know, as opposed to imagine, what it means to live.
The Cry-Baby of our dreams would have sustained that remarkable paradoxical feeling of dangerous innocence for its full two hours, instead of reaching it just fitfully in this and a few other numbers where Liff, Lawson, Sutton, and their colleagues are allowed to cut loose. Alas, no such consistency of theme or tone is achieved here; though Cry-Baby's principal flaw is that it pushes too hard all night long to win us over, it ultimately falls flat, because none of the other creative elements comes close to matching the skill and savvy of its choreography.
The story concerns a young man named Wade Walker who has earned the nickname "Cry-Baby" because he cried when his parents were electrocuted for treason (they were pacifists who were framed for the crime) and has never shed a tear ever since. It's the '50s, and in a world where conformity is the rule, Cry-Baby and his gang of misfits are spurned by mainstream Baltimore society, which is led by Mrs. Vernon-Williams, a wealthy and snobbish woman more concerned with appearances than reality. But Mrs. Vernon-Williams's granddaughter Allison, who has been raised to be a good girl but doesn't really want to be, is immediately captivated by Cry-Baby when she first lays eyes on him. She rebels against her grandmother and her overprotective boyfriend, Baldwin, and runs off to Turkey Point to spend a thrilling night with Cry-Baby and his friends, which culminates in a passionate round of French kissing. But all kinds of trouble looms ahead: there's a fire for which Cry-Baby is framed, a mad young woman named Lenora claims that Cry-Baby is the father of her unborn child, and Act One ends with the whole gang—Allison included—on their way to the police station.
All is sorted out in Act Two, naturally.
Though the story provides a frame for some very broad social commentary that's a nice counterpoint to Legally Blonde's celebration of entitlement, the level of discourse here is sadly as witless as in that show from last season. Cry-Baby spends a lot of time both paying tribute to and sending up a vague idea of the '50s that takes in Eisenhower Era conformism, McCarthyism (in the Rosenberg-ish fate of Cry-Baby's parents), relentless optimism, and, of course, rock & roll. The vagueness is problematic though, for nothing feels terribly authentic. Cry-Baby is an Elvis-like singer, and the score is almost all rock & roll pastiche. But the lyrics (like much of the dialogue) are frequently steeped in a very un-'50s self-awareness; witness song titles like "Screw Loose" (sung by Lenora, the crazy chick with a crush on Cry-Baby), "Squeaky Clean" (an anthem for Baldwin and his Bryl-creamed boy band, The Whiffles), "The Anti-Polio Picnic" (the show's misbegotten opening number), and "I Did Something Wrong...Once" (a confessional that unfortunately goes absolutely nowhere; it's sung by the immensely skillful Harriet Harris as Mrs. Vernon-Williams and she can do nothing with it).
Where did Cry-Baby's creators—who include director Mark Brokaw, book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan (who successfully adapted Hairspray), song writers David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, and, as creative consultant, John Waters himself—go astray? One problem is the misuse of some sensational supporting players, including the aforementioned Harris, who never gets to do anything nearly as deliciously nasty here as she did in the far more tame Thoroughly Modern Millie; Chester Gregory II, who proved in Hairspray and Tarzan what a big talent he has, only to be relegated here to a tiny role as a Little Richard-esque sidekick for Cry-Baby; and Carly Jibson, who starred on Broadway in Hairspray but now plays Pepper, a pregnant teen with a big mouth (but not much to do). Meanwhile, the roles of Baldwin and Lenora (played by Christopher J. Hanke and Alli Mauzey, respectively), have been built up inordinately—a rule of musical comedy might be that genuinely insane characters (as opposed to lovably eccentric or exaggeratedly nasty ones) aren't fun to spend time with. Finally, Elizabeth Stanley is lackluster and not at all convincingly 17 as Allison; and though James Snyder gives it his all as Cry-Baby, he's been set up for failure by his writers who have given him only a wan Elvis clone to play.
But the biggest trouble here is that the creators just don't seem to have the simple faith in their material that many of them did when they made the musical Hairspray five years ago. An underprivileged misfit orphan who gets the girl against the odds is a very appealing hero to root for; Cry-Baby would probably work much better if the layers of knowing irony were lifted and its simple story were told, well, simply. Ashford understands how potently a corps of kids on the cusp of adulthood can fuel all manner of show-stopping pyrotechnics. What a show we would have had here if that raw energy had coursed unfettered through every scene!