More Square than Campy

‘Cry-Baby'

Even the sleaze is wholesome in Cry-Baby, the bobby socks–perky new musical that recently opened on Broadway. The show may be based on the 1990 movie by John Waters, the filmmaker whose gleefully subversive works wallow in low camp. And it may depict the conquest of squeaky-clean 1950s society by a tribe of bad-boy rockers. But translated to the genre of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the wild oats of Waters’s movie look a little like the corn in Oklahoma!

That’s not to say that Cry-Baby is watery and dull: the show’s creators, including director Mark Brokaw, do make a wry comment or two about American culture. The team certainly has enough street cred for the task. The authors of Cry-Baby’s book are Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who nabbed a Tony for their work on Hairspray—another Broadway extravaganza based on a Waters flick. (Meehan also pocketed Tonys for Annie and The Producers.) If it worked once, the reasoning in the commercial-theater world holds, try it another ten times.

The songwriters are a more intriguing team. David Javerbaum is executive producer and former head writer of The Daily Show, the TV program that turned late-night comedy into a critical player in U.S. publishing and politics. Adam Schlesinger hails from the terrific pop band Fountains of Wayne, whose bubbly tunes paint hilariously woebegone portraits of New Jersey working stiffs. For Cry-Baby, Javerbaum and Schlesinger serve up slyly worded period pastiches: Elvis-like tunes with driving beats; barbershop quartet-style croonings; piccolo-laced marching-band sounds; and more. The score provides a lively accompaniment to the chronicle of Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (James Snyder), the leader of a gang of Baltimore teens known as the Drapes. When this strutting delinquent falls in love with the beautiful Allison (Elizabeth Stanley), a member of “Square” society, the straight-laced and dissolute lifestyles must slug it out.

In Cry-Baby the movie, the Drapes are downright icky—the women sporting grotesque smears of makeup, the men wearing sweaty-looking leather, and so on. But because the stage version has a tidy Crate & Barrel look-and perhaps because, even in a post-Rent era, we still associate musicals with a fresh-faced “Edelweiss” aesthetic—the Drapes here seem more brash than seedy.

In fact, rather than showcasing depravity, the musical seems to showcase people who aspire to be depraved. In several early numbers, for instance, the Drapes brag about how extravagantly debauched they are. “Every year for Mother’s Day / I steal my mother’s purse,” a Drape named Pepper (Carly Jibson) boasts in a song that cautions Allison, a would-be rebel, “If you wanna be bad, / You’re gonna have to do a whole lot worse.”

Repeatedly, Cry-Baby depicts an America that aims for extremes—a country of supersize-me appetites and Grand Canyon–scale ambitions. While the Drapes revel in sin, the Squares are sanctimonious, clinging to airbrushed values. “Thanks for our cuddly Constitution / That’s ever so complex, / Full of bouncy little balances / And cheeky little checks!” Allison’s boyfriend Baldwin (Christopher J. Hanke) and his a cappella group, the Whiffles, carol in a zippy Independence Day salute titled “Thanks for the Nifty Country!” An emotion like sadness also swells to Olympian proportions in this faux Baltimore. When adults foil the romances of various teenagers, the young lovers warble about their “misery, agony, helplessness, hopelessness, heartache, and woe.”

The show’s physical design, too, emphasizes the characters’ hyperbolic tendencies. For instance, in the first scene, which is set during an outdoor polio-inoculation drive, the Squares sing about the need to stay vigilant not only against polio but also against UFOs, skimpily dressed women, and pinkos. Lighting designer Howell Binkley and scenic designer Scott Pask underscore this obsessive safety consciousness with a wry shadow play: nurses and enormous syringes looming against the sides of tidy blue tents.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes—including pink plaid jackets and lime green cummerbunds for the Whiffles, and fire-engine red jackets and tight pants for female Drapes—underscore the exaggerated disparity between the camps. The marvelously witty choreography by Rob Ashford emphasizes the same divide. The oversexed Drapes have moments of outré pelvis thrusting. By contrast, during an air-raid drill, the cautious Squares create an elegant conga line, their hands connecting palm to palm, their faces concealed behind gas masks. (Givenchy gas masks, as announced by Allison’s prim grandmother—played by the delightful Harriet Harris.)

This skewering of American excess is fun to watch, but it ultimately feels a little lightweight—except in the production’s sardonically upbeat finale. By this point in the show, the Drapes and Squares have reached a détente and Cry-Baby and Allison have reunited. Beneath a picturesque Ferris wheel, silhouetted against a cloudless sky, the cast belts out the number “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again!”

“Everyone’s got decent housing, / Every woman, every man!” the characters assert. “We’re covered by a universal / Health insurance plan!...There are no assassinations, / No more conflicts overseas! / We conquer mental illness! / And venereal disease!”

The moment spoofs the happily-ever-after denouements in much big-budget entertainment, of course, but in an election season, it does a little more. With politically savvy sarcasm that might not be out of place on The Daily Show, songwriters Javerbaum and Schlesinger and their colleagues seem to remind us that politicians’ promises, too, are often just another show-biz convention.

Published in the 2008-06-06 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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