Ever since "Grease" set the scene, we've had '50s nostalgia pastiche musicals (call them "nostiche") on Broadway, some good, some not so good - "Hairspray" and "All Shook Up" among them.
The latest came last night with "Cry-Baby," which, like "Hairspray," is based on a John Waters movie about Baltimore in the pre-Beatles, Elvis-pelvis mid-'50s, those pre-Salk days when the disease of charitable choice was polio, and the teenage activity of dare was tongue-kissing.
"Cry-Baby" actually starts at an "anti-polio picnic" featuring free injections, feeble humor and awful music. Happily, it gets better from there (then again, there was nowhere to go but up).
It's a Romeo and Juliet yarn about a poor little rich orphan, Allison (Elizabeth Stanley), and a bold and desperate rocker they call Cry-Baby (James Snyder) because, after his parents died, he couldn't shed a tear.
Allison and Cry-Baby instantly fall in love. So much for the story, though book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who co-wrote the book for "Hairspray," have done a pretty nifty job with material not nearly so malleable.
Decidedly less nifty are the songs by David Javerbaum and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger.
The music comes in two rocky flavors - cheery and droopy. It's the kind of music that makes you wonder whether you've heard it before, just before you stop caring.
The edgy lyrics are altogether superior, more stupidly witty than amiably silly. As one of the show's bad girls sings, "I can hold up a bank using only my face/I'm the nastiest creature you ever did see/On Halloween, I dress up as me."
Director Mark Brokaw keeps the thing going and strikes the right Waters note of Day-Glo tattiness, but it's left to Rob Ashford's conventional but punchy choreography - including a good prison-break scene - to give the show any particular energy.
Scott Pask's scenery and Catherine Zuber's costumes ingeniously combine to carry bad taste - the so-bad-darling-it's-good-you'll-scream campery - with tasteful moderation.
The performances are unlikely to set the Styx on fire, but Snyder - looking like a squeaky-clean James Dean - sang well and was charming, if lacking a touch of sleaze, in the title role. Unfortunately, Stanley as the bubbly heroine who wants to be debubbled was little more than a cipher.
The clowns have the best of it. Chester Gregory II does a lovely Little Richard turn as Dupree, Alli Mauzey nuttily delights as Cry-Baby's crazy fan, and Christopher J. Hanke makes a pompously square and nasty villain.
Best of all is Harriet Harris, an epitome of ditz, with a smile continually subsiding into a knowing leer, as Allison's triumphantly arch grandmother with the imposing moniker of Mrs. Vernon-Williams.
It's no "Hairspray" - it just doesn't gel as well.
Brace yourself for a shock, gentle theatergoer. There’s no delicate way of putting this. “Cry-Baby,” the latest Broadway musical based on a John Waters movie, is ... tasteless.
Why aren’t you shocked? Oh, I see. You thought that I meant the show that opened last night at the Marquis Theater was in bad taste. A perfectly natural assumption. That would be expected of any project associated with Mr. Waters, the maker of “Pink Flamingos” and “Polyester,” who helped put America in touch with its hidden, forbidden appetites for the vulgar, trashy, tacky, freakish and seriously offensive.
Sorry for the misunderstanding. The mild-mannered “Cry-Baby: The Musical,” inspired by “Cry-Baby,” the 1990 film about a high school rock ’n’ roll rebel in 1950s Baltimore, shouldn’t offend anyone, despite its inclusion of a singing man in an iron lung, a love ballad devoted to kissing “with tongue” and blithe references to people dying in electric chairs.
When I said “tasteless,” I meant without flavor: sweet, sour, salty, putrid or otherwise. This show in search of an identity has all the saliva-stirring properties of week-old pre-chewed gum. (Not to be tasteless.)
As a fail-safe business venture, the idea of movie-director-based franchises in Broadway musicals is looking dubious. Previously this season we had “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein,” the shrill and clumsy descendant of the blissfully idiotic “Producers,” also taken from a Mel Brooks movie.
Now with the ebullient “Hairspray,” the smash hit musical adaptation of Mr. Waters’s 1988 movie, still running at the Neil Simon Theater, “Cry-Baby” arrives like a weaker, shyer younger sibling, bidding uncertainly for its moment in the sun. As if that’s not enough pressure for a shaky new kid on the block, a revival of “Grease” — like “Cry-Baby,” a good-girl-meets-bad-boy 1950s romance — opened earlier this season to decent business, despite a critical chorus of disgust.
For the record “Cry-Baby,” on which Mr. Waters serves as creative consultant, isn’t monstrously pushy like “Young Frankenstein” or dispiritingly inept like the latest “Grease.” It might be more fun to write about if it were. Instead the show, which has a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (who did the Broadway “Hairspray”) and songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, is most notable for lacking a style to call its own.
Admittedly, the movie “Cry-Baby,” which featured a dewy young Johnny Depp on the cusp of stardom, posed special problems for its adapters. A homage to early Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll flicks, this tale of class warfare in Baltimore had only a cobweb of a plot. The main characters — Mr. Depp’s motorcycle-riding outcast and the restless virgin from the right side of the tracks (played by Amy Locane) — were as set as figures in a passion play, one retold countless times in Top 40 songs of star-crossed love.
By Mr. Waters’s standards the movie is restrained, as if he were striving to retain the mainstream audience he won with “Hairspray.” But it did allow his camera to make love to the insolent, epicene sexiness in Mr. Depp’s face and to parade his usual stock company of eccentric types and has-beens, including Patricia Hearst, Iggy Pop, Joey Heatherton and Joe Dallesandro.
Nobody, alas, seems genuinely eccentric in “Cry-Baby: The Musical,” which is directed by Mark Brokaw and choreographed by the ever-aerobic Rob Ashford. Nobody seems genuinely sexy either.
Though the musical borrows assorted raunchy characters from the film — like the strange-looking girl named Mona, known as Hatchet-Face (Tory Ross), and Pepper the hard-drinking pregnant 16-year-old (Carly Jibson) — the performers all seem like good kids impersonating bad kids for kicks.
Make that good grown-ups impersonating bad kids, since even the young cast members somehow lack the hormonal glow of rampaging youth. I sometimes felt I was watching a junior chamber of commerce revue, devoted to those silly ’50s.
As the show’s heroine, Allison the never-been-kissed society girl, Elizabeth Stanley looks as if she knows from kissing — and then some. She’s a robust, brassy creature, more suited to playing a gung-ho biology teacher than a blushing student. She is also required to sing out of her range, and you feel the strain.
As her misfit boyfriend, Cry-Baby, James Snyder has the unenviable job of channeling the particular tough-but-sensitive charisma associated with James Dean and Elvis Presley (not to mention Mr. Depp’s earlier variation on that theme). For whatever reason, no Broadway actor in recent memory has provided a convincing take on this oft-recycled type (including Cheyenne Jackson in the short-lived “All Shook Up”). And Mr. Snyder, with his slipping white-trash accent and choir-boy face, never registers as remotely dangerous.
The songs by Mr. Javerbaum (a producer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”) and Mr. Schlesinger (of the pop group Fountains of Wayne) include plenty of rockabilly riffs and soulful wails (for a Little Richard-like character played by Chester Gregory II), but they often feel stuck in a groove, repeated until they go dry. Only the closing number, “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again,” a sendup of the innate optimism of both the 1950s and the musical comedy, has any original spark.
It was a mistake, by the way, to include a character (Allison’s uptight fiancé, played by Christopher J. Hanke) who wants to be thought of as witty but keeps seeing his jokes wither and die on the vine. That’s pretty much what happens to most of the gags and one-liners here, victims of soft timing and tentative delivery.
While Harriet Harris, an ornately stylish pro, as Allison’s blue-blooded grandmother, does everything she can to make her lines sound like something out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, the text doesn’t support her. No satiric conceit is sustained long enough for her to work with it effectively. And Mr. Brokaw, a gifted director of small-scale quirky plays, seems incapable of imposing a cohesive sensibility here.
Mr. Ashford brings his customary gymnastic vigor to the choreography: lots of revved-up jumping jacks, push-ups and leg lifts, usually led by a trio of athletic muscle boys. A foreplay sequence with said boys and three female dancers makes clever use of the dancers’ remarkably extendable legs. A fantasy wedding routine was kind of cute. But what’s with that scary fascist police number?
It goes without saying that the show features the requisite crinoline-skirted dresses and varsity sweaters for the rich kids and tight pants and T-shirts for the greasers. (Catherine Zuber designed the costumes.) Scott Pask’s set includes many rolling cutouts to create the mood for the obligatory courtroom, jailhouse and theme park scenes. These bright pieces of scenery summon the 1950s in regulation shorthand. But when they’re rolled off, you see they’re just storefronts. This seems all too apt a metaphor for a show that is terminally flat.
Class warfare has reared its ugly head on Broadway.
In Cry-Baby (* * * out of four), the new musical adaptation of John Waters' film, which opened Thursday at the Marquis Theatre, two very different demographic groups clash when a member of each is struck by Cupid's arrow. Allison Vernon-Williams is a classic 1950s good girl from an established Baltimore family. Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker is a greasy-haired Elvis wannabe whose impoverished parents were found guilty of communism and arson, and executed when he was a boy.
Will Allison manage to shake off her inhibitions and fit in with Cry-Baby's crowd, which includes a shrill pregnant teenager and a woman called Hatchet-Face? Will Cry-Baby be able to win over Allison's starchy grandmother and eliminate the problem of her snooty boyfriend?
Are you kidding? This is musical comedy — or, more accurately, comedy with music. The songs, or at least the melodies, aren't really the point here, any more than they are in the other film-based satires that have popped up on Broadway since the success of Mel Brooks' The Producers in 2001. The following year's Hairspray, another show based on a Waters flick, has been the most tune-driven of the bunch.
The rockabilly-inspired numbers that David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger have crafted for Cry-Baby aren't as ambitious or infectious, but the show is similarly good-hearted, and has more of a Waters edge. Javerbaum and Schlesinger's lyrics and Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book are both more inventively crass and less snarky than those of other contemporary musical winkfests; you get the sense that these writers share Waters' affection for his goofy subjects.
The most engaging characters in this production don't include the romantic leads. James Snyder's Cry-Baby is energetic and likable, but the quirky soulfulness that Johnny Depp brought to the role on screen couldn't translate in a large theater. Elizabeth Stanley brings an endearing awkwardness to Allison, but her gawky prom-queen shtick stretches only so far.
As Dupree, Cry-Baby's Little Richard-like sidekick, Chester Gregory II sings and moves with gusto, but it's the supporting actresses who best capture Waters' sweetly droll sensibility. Playing Allison's granny and caretaker, Harriet Harris cannily serves lines such as, "Sweetheart, do you realize what you've done? Getting engaged in the 11th grade! And on the radio! We're Episcopalians."
Cry-Baby's stalker, Lenora, is played by Alli Mauzey, who is willing and able to distort her bell-like voice and cute face in a perfectly pitched comic simulation of utter madness.
As a rule, camp-driven musicals shouldn't be encouraged any more than Lenora is. But at least Cry-Baby will make you smile, and laugh, without patronizing you, or anyone else.
As the title character memorably told his good-girl-gone-bad sweetheart in John Waters' 1990 movie, "You got it, Allison. You got it raw." But one problem for "Cry-Baby" was that the underground trashmeister's rebel rawness was diluted into benign, kitschy satire in his attempt to follow "Hairspray" with a further step toward the mainstream. So it's perhaps not surprising that watered-down Waters has yielded a flavorless Broadway musical that revels in its down-and-dirtiness yet remains stubbornly synthetic. There's a lot of talent, sass and sweat onstage, particularly in the dance department, plus a sprinkling of wit in the show's good-natured vulgarity. But somehow, it never quite ignites.
Waters' first film after the death of his muse, Divine, "Cry-Baby" was a fun parody of Eisenhower-era values, but it crucially lacked the larger-than-life heart so often provided by the 350-pound tranny superstar. And despite the charisma of Johnny Depp, riding the "21 Jump Street" wave, the movie's star-crossed lovers were a lot less captivating than its freakshow supporting gallery, from Susan Tyrrell as a dirtbag granny to Ricki Lake as a fertile teen mother to porn princess Traci Lords as a lock-up-your-sons sexpot.
That same imbalance plagues the legit version. Like "Hairspray" before it, the stage retread of "Cry-Baby" was adapted by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan from a screen property that was already a musical, ditching the film's numbers for a new song score. But while "Hairspray" provided someone to root for in a zaftig underdog on an integrationist mission, not to mention a lovable mother mortified by her girth but itching to reveal the light she's been hiding under Baltimore's bushel, "Cry-Baby" was and is a generic parody of teen-delinquent movies, in search of a plot.
Leader of greaser gang the Drapes, Wade Walker (James Snyder) earned his nickname from his inability to produce tears since his Rosenberg-reminiscent, pacifist parents were fried in the electric chair after being framed as Communist bombers. Instantly smitten fellow orphan Allison Vernon-Williams (Elizabeth Stanley) is the Sandra Dee type, anxious to escape the starchy country club and watchful eyes of her socially sainted grandmother (Harriet Harris) to swap saliva with Cry-Baby.
Given that neither lover ever wrestles with any real uncertainty about crossing the boundaries between Drapes and Squares, the conflicts dotting the road to their inevitable union are mostly circumstantial.
Snyder smolders with mock intensity as the troubled outsider with the Elvis moves, supplying easy charm in his line readings and musical numbers. But like Amy Locane in the movie, Stanley struggles to make anything out of bland Allison, a personality-bypass who stops the show dead anytime she's centerstage. "Nobody Gets Me," she sings, reprising Cry-Baby's anthem of the misunderstood, but Allison is such a bore there's nothing to get.
It's no shock that Waters (and, in turn, O'Donnell and Meehan) should steer our sympathies toward the stigmatized lowlifes while exposing the white-bread conservatives as underhanded bullies, bigots and hypocrites. But as a satire on class barriers, the show lacks teeth, and despite parading out '50s accoutrements from an iron lung to a bomb shelter and gas masks, its affection for the era lacks both an insightful point of view and a contemporary echo.
Buoyant musical numbers might have helped camouflage the insipid plot -- as they occasionally did in the movie -- but the derivative songs by "The Daily Show" exec producer and former head writer David Javerbaum and Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger offer interchangeable period pastiche of rock 'n' roll, doo-wop, rockabilly and R&B, enlivened at times by touches of cheeky humor in the lyrics.
Most of the electricity onstage comes courtesy of Rob Ashford's raunchy choreography, especially as executed by the limber male ensemble. Cry-Baby's escape from juvie lockup in "Jailyard Jubilee" is a terrific display of movement-based storytelling, full of lightning transitions and funny asides, that hustles along the narrative in a way the songs here rarely do.
And the prison-yard dance with the guys wearing license plates for tap shoes is a rousing lesson from the "Stomp" school. But when Ashford's muscular input is not front and center, the action often slows to a crawl, exposing the book's meat-free bones and suggesting musicals may not be director Mark Brokaw's forte.
With only a wan romance between cardboard cutouts to drive the scattershot action, the creatives invest heavily in supporting characters, obtaining help from some engaging performers.
Christopher J. Hanke strikes an amusing balance of squeaky-cleanness and meanspirited smugness as Allison's Square suitor; Carly Jibson (a former Tracy in "Hairspray" on Broadway) is a funny, diminutive ball of slutty attitude in the role played by Lake in the movie; and Alli Mauzey injects off-the-wall loopiness into Lenora, her unrequited and unhinged love for Cry-Baby outlined in "Screw Loose," a subversive spin on Patsy Cline's "Crazy."
The ever-reliable Harris also demonstrates her estimable comic chops with the drollest of deadpans, gamely leading the crowd in the zippy opener, "The Anti-Polio Picnic," or tiptoeing through the tricky wordplay of her confession to a past moral transgression in "I Did Something Wrong...Once."
The standout, however, is Chester Gregory II (another "Hairspray" alumnus, headed to the "Shrek" musical to play Donkey later this summer) as Cry-Baby's buddy Dupree, a coyote-voiced crooner who's Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Cab Calloway rolled into one dynamite package.
There's also plenty to look at in Scott Pask's playfully theatrical sets (the mossy, willow-framed makeout haven Turkey Point is a hoot), Catherine Zuber's natty costumes and Howell Binkley's vibrant lighting. But without a central romance that cooks, the show's pleasures evaporate as they unfold. Javerbaum and Schlesinger angle to send the audience out on a high with the good-time closer "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again," but unlike "Hairspray," where "You Can't Stop the Beat" was a mandate to celebrate, we don't care enough about anyone onstage in "Cry-Baby" to share their joy.
Inevitable as they are, the comparisons to the previous Broadway musical fashioned from a Waters film are secondary to the grab bag of elements in "Cry-Baby" that recall everything from "Grease" and "Little Shop of Horrors" to "All Shook Up" and "The Wedding Singer." Whatever its inspirations, this vanilla show lacks a fresh identity of its own.