Hey, 'Cry-Baby,' Grow Up!

Elizabeth Stanley and James Snyder pair up but don't add much electricity to "Cry-Baby," based on the 1990 Waters movie.
Elizabeth Stanley and James Snyder pair up but don't add much electricity to "Cry-Baby," based on the 1990 Waters movie. (By Joan Marcus Via Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008


Now that there are two Broadway musicals based on movies by John Waters, this might be a good moment to reflect on the overall record for adapting the filmmaker's out-there oeuvre.

The first show, splashy, lovable "Hairspray," opened in 2002 and took off like a shot.

The second, "Cry-Baby," opened last night at the Marquis Theatre. And this time, the baby fall down and go boom.

In a slew of heartening ways, "Hairspray" demonstrated why it was right for the part. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's ebullient rock-and-roll score infused the evening with a generously jaunty '60s spirit, and Harvey Fierstein's performance as fleshy Edna Turnblad was both an eternally and maternally satisfying translation of a character out of Waters's gallery of trashy exotics.

"Cry-Baby," on the other hand, never produces anything close to a decent rationale for a Broadway bow. Intended as a spoof of the '50s and the dawning of the cultural celebration of teenage rebellion, the musical feels as if it's limping pallidly in the shadow of "Grease." The tone of the parody numbers by Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum -- the latter is executive producer of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" -- does not so much embody Waters's embrace of kitsch as it does a coarser brand of smugness.

The most memorable song title reflects the level of the evening's snickering humor: "Girl," sings the bad-boy hero, played by James Snyder, to virginal Allison (Elizabeth Stanley), "Can I Kiss You With Tongue?"

Maybe by the desensitized standards of 2008, a comic love song can only make an impact by couching romance as an act of swapping saliva. "It can swish, it can swirl/It can twist, it can twirl/It can tickle the top of your lung," Snyder's Cry-Baby croons about his virtuoso lingual agility.

And somewhere, a Gershwin is cringing.

Waters's 1990 movie of the same title proves an esoteric choice for musical adaptation. The film is aimless and airless and noteworthy mostly for the presence of Johnny Depp in the role of carnally dangerous Cry-Baby, who in pursuit of a rich Baltimore girl throws the country-club set into a tizzy. Regulars in Waters's celluloid retinue, such as Ricki Lake and Mink Stole, supply some enjoyment, even if the 90-minute flick taxes the patience of anyone except the most tolerant of Waters's fans.

Conforming to the scene-and-song conventions of a musical, "Cry-Baby" still suffers from its paper-thin and, let's face it, been-there-done-that conceit. Such story as there is has Cry-Baby -- so named because he shed a tear only once, after his parents, falsely accused of treason, were executed -- invading (with his fellow early-rocker/greasers) the prim, buttoned-down world of Allison and her grandmother (Harriet Harris), a blue blood of the type that became a dependable comic foil by the anti-Establishment '60s.

The first act treads considerable water with the mechanics of Cry-Baby's courtship of Allison and other incidental distractions, including the borderline-cruel caricature of a mentally ill teenager (Alli Mauzey) who obsessively stalks Cry-Baby. (She gets a solo titled, sophomorically enough, "Screw Loose.") The dullness of the proceedings is mitigated somewhat by Rob Ashford's muscular choreography, and in Act 2, an occasional better caliber of number. That would include "All in My Head," in which the two leads' hapless suitors (Mauzey and Christopher J. Hanke as Baldwin) conjure futures aglow in matrimonial bliss.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who collaborated on the libretto of "Hairspray," re-up for "Cry-Baby," but on this occasion their antic joke-writing strains against Waters's offbeat, slapdash ideas. Director Mark Brokaw seems to be on yet another page, as he is unable to compel the actors to romp in the same comic corral. Mauzey redeems crazy Lenora at times, and Harris works double time in the effort to make something of Mrs. Vernon-Williams, but neither Snyder nor Stanley musters the requisite electricity for their sexy sparring match.

You don't end up liking any of these characters, and you're left with the suspicion that the authors didn't care for them much, either. Maybe that's why "Cry-Baby" comes across as patently smart-alecky, and why, like a clueless guy on a date, it's so desperate to slip you the tongue.

Cry-Baby, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, based on the movie by John Waters. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Choreography, Rob Ashford. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Peter Hylenski; orchestrations, Christopher Jahnke; makeup, Randy Houston Mercer; fight direction, Rick Sordelet. With Carly Jibson, Lacey Kohl, Courtney Balan, Chester Gregory II. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway, New York. Call 212 -307-4100 or visit http://

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