'Baby Steps'

With all that's right about this musical version of a John Waters film, how did they get the lead roles so wrong? Theater Review

November 20, 2007|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun theater critic

La Jolla, Calif. -- Cry-Baby the musical is tantalizingly, teasingly, heartbreakingly close to success. That makes it all the more frustrating to see success receding in the distance, marching out of Southern California in search of someplace else to settle down.

This new song-and-dance extravaganza, based on John Waters' 1990 cult classic film, made its rollicking world premiere Sunday night before a packed audience. Much about it works not just well but brilliantly.

And the musical's creators - some of the most talented folks in the business - still have five months to tinker with the off-kilter Romeo and Juliet story before it opens on Broadway in April.

But there's one major thing wrong - the blandness of the two central characters - and that's going to be tough to fix. Imbuing them with quirkiness, or even believability, will alter the very DNA of Waters' source material.

But there's a lot about Cry-Baby to praise before expounding on that point.

The show's score, a mix of doo-wop and rockabilly, with nods to early Motown and rock-and-droll, is mostly a cheeky delight, though it takes until the fourth song, "I'm Infected," to really get going.

The script is hilarious. The book-writers, Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, have their tongues stuck so firmly in their cheeks, it's a wonder those pliable muscles don't accidentally poke through and lick their ears.

To wit: Before a group of high school students is to be inoculated against a potentially deadly disease, one Roland Park society matron proudly announces that the women's club has come out against polio "56 to 8."

Rob Ashford's choreography is characterized by witty physical jokes, and there's one rousing showstopper: "A Little Upset." A dozen inmates, convicted of "Drapery in the first degree," attach yellow and black Maryland license plates, circa 1954, to their shoes and kick, back-flip and tap-dance their way to freedom.

The number is an obvious homage to Stomp, the urban dance spectacular that uses matchbook covers, brooms, trash-can lids and more to create music. But the license plates make a sound peculiar to themselves: softer-edged than traditional tap, but just as gritty, not so much a slide as a scrape. The effect is quite thrilling.

Cry-Baby is a warped romance set in 1954 Bawlamer. Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker is a Drape, a joy-riding juvenile delinquent who never sheds more than a single, picturesque tear. Allison Vernon-Williams is a member of the proudly conformist Squares, whose class values are slyly satirized in a song called "Squeaky Clean."

But the two kids have more in common than it first appears. Both are orphans: Cry-Baby's pacifist parents were framed for an arson and went to the electric chair. Allison's were killed in a freak croquet accident. Can true love be far behind?

Set designer Scott Pasek hit upon a clever visual metaphor to communicate these dual worlds. He frames the stage with a set of arches that, when combined with the fourth line of the floor, forms a kind of square.

When the show inhabits the world of the Squares, the arches are predictably, well, square. But, when the action shifts to the realm of the Drapes, the sides and top of the frame shift and tilt. Suddenly, the audience is looking at the stage at a slant. It is literally a shift in our perspective - with all the emotional connotations that implies - and it is nothing short of inspired.

The supporting characters are eccentric marvels. Alli Mauzey, as the lovelorn Lenora, might not steal Cry-Baby's heart, but she nearly pilfers the show. In her twisted torch song, "Screw Loose," Mauzey has some moves with a microphone that would make a porn star blush.

Chester Gregory II channels his inner James Brown to considerable comic effect as Dupree, Cry-Baby's best friend. Gregory has a powerhouse of a voice that can hold a note for so long, that he's probably still holding it as you read this.

It's also great fun to see Harriet Harris, as Allison's staid and proper grandmother, gradually become unhinged as she sings her confession, "I Did Something Wrong (Once)."

If only Cry-Baby and Allison had even a smidgen of idiosyncrasy.

That's not the fault of either James Snyder (Cry-Baby) or Elizabeth Stanley (Allison), who have sweet, true voices, charisma and the loopy sensibility required by a Waters musical.

But the main characters are underwritten. They are upstanding, noble, selfless, pure of heart and bo-ring. In fact, if Cry-Baby didn't wear a scarlet jacket and play an electric guitar, you'd swear he was a Square.

What makes the supporting characters so rich are their ambivalences, flaws and internal contradictions. The plot development that allows the title character to be exonerated and his family honor cleared, which allows Romeo and Juliet to ride off into the sunset on a Harley, results not from Cry-Baby's own actions, but from another character's crisis of conscience and moral growth.

Because all of us in the audience also are full of ambivalences, flaws and internal contradictions, our sympathies flow to the characters in the show possessing the same traits. Allison and Cry-Baby may be the idealized, unobtainable objects of desire, but it's hard to care what happens to them.

In fact, I found myself rooting for Cry-Baby to go off with the undeniably psychotic, but fabulously interesting, Lenora.

It's enough to make a calloused critic shed a single, picturesque tear.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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