Happy tears

A staged reading brings the John Waters musical `Cry-Baby' one step closer to Broadway


New York // It's 3 o'clock on the Thursday before July Fourth. Inside a fifth-floor rehearsal hall on West 26th Street, two dozen actors are preparing for the holiday.

But they'll be celebrating July 4, 1954, in Baltimore - the setting for the final scene of the Broadway-bound musical, Cry-Baby.

Based on John Waters' 1990 movie, Cry-Baby is a romance set against the rivalry between two factions of Baltimore teenagers - the "drapes," black leather-jacketed toughs who wore their hair slicked back in duck-tails, and the "squares," who sported crewcuts and varsity sweaters.

In half an hour, the actors will take their seats on two tiers of folding chairs with a music stand in front of each. For the second time today, they will perform a staged reading of Cry-Baby for 100 or so friends, Broadway theater owners and a few potential investors.

Cry-Baby is the second Waters movie to be turned into a musical, and everyone involved in today's performances hopes it will follow in the dancing footsteps of the first - the 2003 Tony Award winner, Hairspray.

A lot is riding on these readings. In February, Cry-Baby is scheduled to have an out-of-town tryout at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, the same theater that was host for Hairspray's pre-Broadway engagement. If that goes well, Cry-Baby's producers would like to bring the $10 million show to Broadway in the spring - just in time for the 2007 Tony nominations.

Right now, however, in the lobby outside the rehearsal hall, guests are mingling and giving their names to a man with a clipboard, who stands sentinel at the door. Gathered nearby is the family of David Javerbaum, head writer of The Daily Show and author of the lyrics for Cry-Baby. Off to one side is William Ivey Long, who designed the costumes for Broadway's Hairspray. And, of course, there's Waters himself, clad in brown plaid and looking taller, thinner and more sepulchral than ever.

Then the rehearsal-hall doors open and the small crowd enters. The members of the show's creative team take seats in the audience. Cry-Baby's librettists, Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, also wrote the script for the musical of Hairspray. But Javerbaum and composer David Schlesinger (co-founder of the pop group Fountains of Wayne) will be making their Broadway debuts. Sitting with his relatives, Javerbaum pops out of his chair to shoot a quick digital photo.

"We know some critics feel we are going into the old John Waters well again," O'Donnell says before settling into his chair. But, he insists, Waters' movies are "pieces of Americana, like Shane or The Lone Ranger."

Although the producers are anticipating a spring Broadway opening, they don't have a theater lined up. Representatives of two of the three organizations that own Broadway theaters - the Shuberts and Jujamcyn - are here. The third, the Nederlanders, attended the day's earlier reading.

The patron saint

Adam Epstein, Cry-Baby's 31-year-old lead producer, steps to the front and addresses the audience. The boyish-looking producer's credits include Hairspray, The Wedding Singer and several Broadway revivals, but this is the first time he's initiated a Broadway show. He keeps his remarks brief, introducing the creative team, and is followed by the man he describes as the show's "creative conscience, creative godfather and patron saint" - Waters.

Reading from notes on yellow legal paper, the film director says, "I know what you've all been thinking - the unspoken question that everyone is afraid to say out loud: Another John Waters movie becomes a Broadway play? Can lightning strike twice?

"And the answer is: Yes," he begins, to the crowd's warm laughter.

Waters also gives the audience a taste of what's to come. "A sullen, swivel-hipped rockabilly juvenile delinquent who falls for a square ingenue who's itching to go bad. To top it off, he's got a posse of tough gals - one wantonly sexual; one so ugly, she's beautiful; and the other fat and furious.

"If that doesn't make the American public sing and dance, I'm Mrs. Miller," he quips, referring to the grandmother of 1960s talk-show fame who was renowned for singing off-key.

Then Waters lets the performers launch into what he calls "One single, salty tear of a musical."

Joe Mandragona - a newcomer from the West Coast - plays the title character, the role created on film by Johnny Depp. The actors wear street clothes, not costumes, but many have chosen their garb carefully. Mandragona, who has longish sideburns and the requisite slicked-back dark hair, has donned a black T-shirt and jeans, and he just happens to have a large tattoo of an eagle on his left arm.

Megan Lawrence, who is playing Hatchet-Face, the ugly girl in Cry-Baby's gang, is wearing a wine-colored T-shirt decorated with a skull and crossbones. At intermission, Lawrence, a 2006 Tony-Award nominee for her performance in The Pajama Game, reveals that she bought the T-shirt specifically for Hatchet-Face. "It's my only angry piece of clothing," she says.

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