Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews




picture - Cry BabyTheater Review

by John Topping

published May 2, 2008


Cry Baby

now playing on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre


If everyone were into recycling the way the entertainment industry is, we would be well on our way to reversing climate change.  Would it ever have occurred to anyone to turn the John Waters film Cry Baby, an homage to Elvis Presley movies, into a Broadway musical had it not been for the success of Hairspray, the wildly successful musical based on another John Waters film of the same name?  Most likely, no.  You mean (gasp!) they just did it for the money?!  There doesn’t seem to be any other legitimate reason in sight.  What’s particularly disappointing here is that it should and could have been so much better. 


Actually, once all doubt has evaporated that this will not be a stellar evening in the theater, the big surprise is how often it achieves bona fide entertainment, almost despite itself.  Especially when you compare it to, say, last season’s Curtains, which is, in my opinion, a beautiful example of pure, unadulterated mediocrity.  Theoretically it’s “better” than Cry Baby – or at least more cohesive as a whole.  And yet, somehow, almost inexplicably, Cry Baby, although just plain bad, is vastly more entertaining.  But it tends to waver from merely dumb to massively uninspired to surprisingly delightful with the same jarring schizophrenia of its most engaging character.


Actually, there are a few reasons that are explicable.  First and foremost is Rob Ashford’s brilliant choreography.  Though initially it’s not clear if the dancing is always organic to the play, once you realize that the play is not even organic unto itself, the issue becomes unimportant.  I can’t remember a musical in recent memory wherein the exploration and exploitation of pure physical movement was so marvelously and imaginatively achieved.  Is it worth buying a ticket for this aspect alone?  That’s your own personal call, but I recommend at least that you not pay full price.


The sets, lighting and costumes (by Scott Pask, Howell Binkley and Catherine Zuber, respectively) are all bright colors and simple, effective design schemes.  But there is one scene that is composed – and looks – like a painting, with muted, subtle tones.  Actually, in the middle of this almost pastoral image is an incongruous spotlight on a stage-within-the-stage exhibiting a spectacle of Cry Baby’s typical shenanigans.  It’s as if the artists insisted on having a moment for themselves, if only peripherally, to give some kind of salvation to their toils.


The songs by David Javerbaum (a former writer for The Daily Show and The Onion, so it might be assumed that he did more of the lyrics) and Adam Schlesinger (a member of the bands Ivy and Fountains of Wayne, so it might be assumed that he did more of the music) are hit-and-miss.  Sometimes you hear the humor, sometimes the humor isn’t delivered with the precision it demands – most notably in the song “Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)” – and too often they don’t register much of anything, acting as dead weight instead of buoyancy.


The book is by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and this is where the fate of the show is truly confounding.  Neither of them are lightweights or newcomers to theater or comedy or each other (they shared a Tony for the book of Hairspray), so how they managed to get it all so wrong may be the biggest question mark currently hanging over Broadway.  I didn’t see the film version of Cry Baby, so I never knew where Waters ended and the adaptation began, but the tedium on display at the Marquis made me surprised to learn that it is one of his most popular films.


I hate to pick on actors who have not yet achieved any significant degree of fame, but the casting of James Snyder as the title character was a missed opportunity which, to a very large degree, does the show in.  Although he is certainly not untalented, the role cries to give birth to a star, and unfortunately he is not it.  The performance is anything but effortless; it’s way too clear that Snyder is working hard at trying to make things look smooth.  But the blame must go to the producers for not spotting this glaring problem in San Diego and recasting before it moved here. 


The female lead, Elizabeth Stanley, fares much better but doesn’t really rise to the occasion either.  Learning that she was Laura Bell Bundy's understudy in Legally Blonde makes one pine to see Bundy take on this role instead.  For that matter, I longed to see how Jerry Mitchell, the director of Legally Blonde, would have shaped things differently himself.  In that show, he had the sense of humor firmly, knowingly and expertly grasped.  Although Mark Brokaw has proven himself to be an immensely talented director in the past, he is clearly out of his element here, and it's hard to imagine that he saw anything in the material beyond a bigger-than-usual paycheck.


The supporting cast, led by Tony winner Harriet Harris, is all around more interesting and definitely more fun.  The standouts for me were Christopher J. Hanke and Alli Mauzey as Baldwin and Lenora, the designated fiancées of the leads who don’t love them.  Hanke at first seems bland, but as it turns out, that’s part of the character he’s built, and once we see it fully developed, he shines.  Mauzey’s character is hilariously off-the-wall and off her rocker from the beginning.  She becomes quite missed when she is not on the stage, although her characterization is a tad less than 100% successful at the end when she gets swept up into the obligatory farcical plot mechanics.


Now that John Waters' two most family-friendly films have been turned into musicals, if this franchise continues, there is probably nowhere to go but up.  It's hard to imagine that musicals versions of his less family-friendly films like Pink Flamingos, Polyester or Serial Mom wouldn't be vastly more entertaining than Cry Baby.  But on the other hand [delivered in tired, exasperated inflection]: must we?


johntopping @


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