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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Thanks to Rob Ashford's super-energetic choreography, perky is something of an understatement for this dance driven musical. The show's high watermark, the third scene of the second act when the title character and his gang break out of the "Maryland Vocational Training Farm For Wayward Punks" simply takes your breath away. So. . .add exciting to bright and perky as apt descriptive tags." However, endearing is not a particularly fitting adjective for this Hairspray wannabe.
Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, who also adapted Hairspray, have again written a book that taps into the spirit of a by-gone era in Water's hometown (Cry-Baby, the movie, revisited the conformist 1950s that preceded Hairspray's in full bloom rock 'n' rolling 1960s). It's a lucid adaptation, crisply helmed by Mark Brokaw. However, the campy situation and characters are neither as interesting, timely or as emotionally engaging as Tracy Turnblatt's Cinderella style integration of the local TV dance show for fat girls as well as blacks.
There's plenty of fodder for ten scenes and twenty songs in Waters' spoof of the 50s rigid good-bad, insider-outsider class structure. The cornucopia of threats to the common good include polio, scrappy juvenile delinquents and communism (the parents whose execution orphaned the title character are thinly disguised versions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg).
The trouble is that Cry-Baby simply isn't first-class. The songs are a lively enough amalgam of the period's rockabilly and doo-wop genres. However, none are especially memorable, except for a few numbers like "Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe" and Harriet Harris' terrific " I Did Something Wrong. . .Once." Not even the better numbers though have the makings of becoming stand-alone hits.
There also aren't any genuine love ballads, even though this is essentially a love story, actually a quadrangle: Allison, a good girl raised by a strict and proper grandmother forgets her country club boyfriend Baldwin after one look at Cry-Baby, the combination Elvis/James Dean bad boy. To her grandmother's dismay she declares her love and announces that she wants a less bland and more exciting bad girl esperiences. Her instincts are right on the mark since Cry-Baby is actually a good guy who's had a bad break in life, whereas boyfriend Baldwin who sings with a group called The Whiffles, is not the goody two-shoes he pretends to be. The fourth character in the romantic entanglements is Leonora who'll go to any length to win Cry-Baby, even though he is so eager to be rid of her that he tries to run her over (another reason that it's hard to find these characters and their story to be endearing enough to engage your emotions).
The reason that the love songs don't make the grade as ballads is that the lyrics are very much inspired by Water's style of irony. (Cry-Baby's and Allison's first kiss is sealed with a song entitled "Girl Can I Kiss You with Tongue?") Unfortunately, as is typical in a large Broadway venue like the Marquis, the songs come across as shrill and loud and it will take listening to a CD recording to appreciate some of the sharper Water-esque lyrics.
The size of the house also accounts for a more limited evidence of the tear that Johnny Depp, the film's Cry-Baby, sheds every day after losing his parents to what he's sure is an unfair justice system. Happily, Snyder, who's making his Broadway debut, has the looks, voice and physical stamina to play this demanding role. Still, you don't identify and sympathize with him as you do with Tracy, Hairspray's lead character who, besides valiantly knocking down body image and racial prejudices, gives wings to her ironing board tethered mother. Elizabeth Stanley, who was a delightful oboe, tuba and alto sax playing April in the John Doyle's revival of Company, brings a strong enough voice to the role of Allison to overlook her being a bit too old to be a totally convincing sixteen year old, but again her character is less fully dimensional than Tracy and other Hairspray characters.
Chester Gregory II and Carly Jibson do amusing work as Cry-Baby's friend Dupree and his promiscuous cousin Pepper. The support cast performer who makes the strongest impression is Ali Mauzey as the unwanted but hilariously persistent Lenora. Most memorable of all is the incomparable Harriet Harris as Allison's grandmother, the snooty Mrs. Vernon-Williams. Too bad she has only one big solo. Another excellent older generation character is the always dependable Richard Poe as Judge Stone (a sly wink to Louis Stone who played Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy movies that ran from 1938 to 1958?)
Scott Pask moves the narrative forward with one colorful flying and gliding set after another. To start things off, we meet Harris in charge of a polio inoculation drive at a public park. Director Brokaw wisely moves forward quick from this fairly hum drum opener to a country club and its cultural opposite, the Turkey Point or what Mrs. Vernon-Wilson disdainfully dismisses as the "red-neck Riviera." A scene in Turkey Point's lovers' lane has enough sexual double entendres to prompt a caveat for parents: Cry-Baby, unlike Hairspray, is too risque for young children.
The most visually and dramatically powerful scene is the prison farm where Cry-Baby and his cohorts are sent after being accused of burning down the Turkey Point Pavillion. This is also the introduction to the already praised prison break dance sequence,
Costume designer Catherine Zuber has created crayon colored, crinoline buoyed dresses for the good girls and color coordinated suits for the Whiffles. Howell Binkley's lighting rounds out production values that scream big Broadway show.
Will the snazzy staging and dancing keep the Marquis filled now that the show has officially opened and the promotional pricing ($54 for orchestra seats, in keeping with the 1954 time frame)? As H. L. Mencken, another famous Baltimorian, once said, "Noone ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."