Cry Baby

cry_babyOne of the joys of theater can be the element of surprise. It is going into a new musical with minimal expectations, only to be pleasantly surprised to find that the show is genuinely entertaining. That happened when I saw Cry Baby, the new musical based on the John Waters cult movie (which starred Johnny Depp). I thoroughly enjoyed the Broadway Cry Baby. It is by no means a great musical, and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but I had a smile on my face through most of the evening. While Cry Baby doesn’t have the show-stopping excitement or emotional pull of Hairspray, the hit Broadway musical also based on a Waters film, I found it to be far superior to other Broadway movie adaptations such as High Fidelity and The Wedding Singer, and better than the likable but uneven Legally Blonde, which has been running for over a year now. I liked Cry Baby’s irreverence, which can be expected given the Waters source material; I found the score to be a good one; and Rob Ashford’s choreography, which I’ll talk more about, was particularly noteworthy.

Cry Baby takes place in Baltimore (as do many of Waters’s movies) in 1954. While Hairspray deals with race, Cry Baby’s subject matter is class. In the musical, the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, the title character, falls for the debutante, who hangs out with the clean-cut “squares.” The musical also features differing musical styles reflective of the two groups, with Cry-Baby and his friends’ numbers representing the emerging ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll scene. The two musical styles square off in the show’s climactic scene, which also serves to further amplify the class themes. The show’s satire tends to be fairly gentle; I would have liked Cry Baby to be edgier and to have even more bite. I did get a kick out of many of the ‘50s references, and there were plenty of laughs and chuckles throughout the show. Cry Baby’s attitude and inventiveness are very much reflected by a song title like “Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue” and by a dance number set at a cotillion, with the performers wearing tuxedos, prom dresses, and gas masks!

As I’ve mentioned, I liked the score written by Broadway newcomers David Javerbaum , who is executive producer of The Daily Show, and Adam Schlesinger, a member of the bands Fountains of Wayne and Ivy and an Academy Award-nominated composer of the song “That Thing You Do!” While none of the songs are instantly memorable, a number of them made good first impressions, and many of the lyrics were genuinely witty.

The cast worked hard and delivered some strong performances. As Cry-Baby, James Snyder was fine. He’s no Johnny Depp, and perhaps he could have a bit more charisma and charm, but his singing and dancing are strong and he turns in a solid performance. I loved Harriet Harris, who plays the debutante’s grandmother. She can make me laugh just with her style and delivery. While not a true singer, she puts across her big number, “I Did Something Wrong,” quite effectively. Christopher Hanke came on strong in Act Two as the nerdy and self-absorbed Baldwin, one of the “squares,” and Alli Mauzey does some delightful work as the crazed Lenora, the Cry-Baby groupie. The fantasy number that Hanke and Mauzey perform in Act Two, “All in My Mind,” is a real charmer. I found Elizabeth Stanley to be winning as the leading lady, Allison, properly conveying both her privileged background as well as the confusion that results after she eventually explores her more dangerous side and falls for Cry-Baby.

Clearly the highlight of the show is Rob Ashford’s energetic, acrobatic, and muscular choreography. This is a heavy dancing show, maybe the best we’ve seen on Broadway since Movin’ Out. There is a lot of jitterbug and even some tap, and the extended Act Two scene, starting with a jailhouse number and evolving into an escape and chase scene, is simply terrific.

Cry Baby’s closing number, “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again,” is reminiscent of Hairspray’s finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” While it lacks “Beat’s” infectious melody and doesn’t send you out of the theater on the same giddy high as “Beat” did, it still brings Cry Baby to a winning and satisfying conclusion. I wish the show well. Sure, it could have more emotional weight and could have sharpened and fine-tuned its tone a bit more; but it worked for me. I’m glad I gave Cry Baby a chance. Hopefully, others will do so and, like me, find themselves glad they did. - James Miller

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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