Reviewed by David Spencer
Right off, I have to admit, camp humor, especially the kind of pop-culture, romping, whoopee gay-sensibility that filmmaker John Waters specializes in, is simply not my brand of comic eccentricity. For sheer absurdity, I favor Monty Python; for genre parody, I dig stuff like The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the BBC's current Hyperdrive or the classic Police Squad—for somewhat gentler, more humanist eccentricity, my tastes favor Northern Exposure—and recently, a brilliant Canadian series about a collective of young video game designers working for a big corporation, called jPod. (That last is based on the novel by Douglas Coupland; just canceled by the CBC—biiiig mistake—prompting a groundswell of "save jPod" campaigning up north. But its 13 episodes are still eminently downloadable, so if geographical restrictions prevent you from seeing them on the CBC website, I urge you to fire up your bit torrent application and get 'em. And now back to our regularly scheduled review.)
So this musical based on the tale about a bad boy biker guy Wade "Cry Baby" Walker (James Snyder) with an absurdly tragic backstory from which he gets his nickname, and the show its title—would be unlikely to draw me in under any circumstances. (The story: Cry-Baby’s parents—shades of the Rosenbergs—were framed and executed for treason; he cried for them once, but never cried again; and Allison [Elizabeth Stanley], the too-good upper crust girl from the too-good side of the tracks, falls for him to the consternation of polite society.) The question then becomes...how likely is it to draw in a more receptive attendee?
Hard to say.
Taking it solely on its own terms as a musical, it doesn't, craft-wise, do anything particularly wrong. The libretto, by Thomas O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan would seem to faithfully reflect the general outline and trademark indicia of the original film—close enough to give its fans all the familiar things they'd demand, self-supporting enough to make sense to one who has never seen it—and the score by Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum reflects the right pop-energies from the proper characters to sing at the appropriate story points; more, the songs are well-formed, the rhymes and scans nearly always perfect, elevating the pop music tropes to an unusual level of literacy.
But by the same token, there seems a kind of bloodlessness to all the efficiency. Cry-Baby lacks the heart of its unofficial sister musical Hairspray, also based on a John Waters film, in part because the enterprise feels mercenary—how genuine was the motivating passion? would it have even been attempted if Hairspray had not demonstrated that the John Waters catalog might be lucrative?—and in part because its story lacks the true nobility at the heart of Hairspray's silliness: young, overweight heroine Tracy's desire to fight bigotry of all kinds and improve society at large. (There's a vague flavor of that in Cry-Baby, but [a] it's substantially watered down, the social commentary limited to the tale of a , class "outsider"; and [b] it's the same message—been there, heard that sung.) And this is reflected in both the perfunctory crispness of the libretto and a score whose music so familiarly reflects the song styles being borrowed and sent up that, despite tongue-in-cheek lyrics, they never shine with the imprimatur of originality, or even a filtering point of view (save for one non-genre, Act Two character confessional for deft comedienne Harriet Harris as the heroine's understanding, rather youngish grandmother).
Too, Cry-Baby starts at such high octane, under Mark Brokaw's super-slick direction, with several relentless and relentlessly presented numbers at the start that you don't get to spend any "bonding" time with the characters; you just meet them long enough to clock their essences and what they're about in broad strokes and wham! wham onto the next. Argue that all they are are broad stroke essences and I'll concede the point, but so are the characters in Forum and Pippin among many others (including Hairspray). Those shows still give us time to care.
So really, again, it's down to how you feel about pop culture camp. If it's prone to rizzle your risibles, you have a shot at a rousing good time. If it's the kind of thing that, on TV, would make you hit the remote button in favor of the slyer satire of a Family Guy rerun, or the latest episode of NCIS, or Zimmern scarfing down more Bizarre Foods, or anything other than such smirky-smarmy goings on, then the only reason to attend Cry-Baby live is being a musical theatre completist, who has to see everything because it's your calling and passion to do so.
But I wonder if even a diehard adherent would leave this one at curtainfall believing it was necessary...