Saturday, April 19, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Three, "Cry-Baby"

Here's what's right about "Cry-Baby," the new musical opening at the Marquis next week:

- The orchestra. This band swings. Incredibly tight, big, boisterous -- everything you want a party band to be. The rhythm section keeps things rolling, and the horns are always ready to stand up and be counted. Plus they start the evening off right with a fun, creative way of doing the "silence your cell phone, unwrap your candies" announcement.

- The dancing. I guess when a band swings like the "Cry-Baby" orchestra does, it's hard not to move in time. But these kids are some of the most talented, energetic, precise dancers I've seen anywhere. It's just fun watching them strut and shimmy.

- The staging. It's big, it puts you right where you need to be, it supports the story and it moves swiftly and seamlessly from one scene to another. Truly top-notch.

- The performers. Start with Harriet Harris, who absolutely seizes the stage as Mrs. Vernon-Williams, the squarest of the square, queen of the uptight. Finish with the rest of the cast, who are uniformly strong. Add special kudos to Chester Gregory II, for his preening (at least vocally) portrayal of Dupree.

- Many of the songs. "Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe," "Girl, Can I Kiss You...? (the sentence is completed "with tongue"), "Screw Loose," "I'm Infected" and "I Did Something Wrong Once" are all fun, if slightly forgettable. And the wonderfully, hopelessly optimistic closer "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again," brings the proceedings to a wonderfully ironic close.

Now, what's wrong with "Cry-Baby"? From a critical standpoint, I'm not sure anything's really wrong, per se -- the show seems to rocket along, telling a simple story that's about as old as stories get: it's "Romeo & Juliet" without the tragic elements: rich girl falls for boy from the wrong side of...well, the wrong side of just about everything: the tracks, the law, fashion... There are plenty of laughs, and as I previously said, the performers are terrific and the music and dancing stellar.

So what's my qualm? Well, since "Cry-Baby" is designed as a mainstream entertainment in the vein of John Waters's previous Broadway hit re-make of a quirky movie of his, "Hairspray," I think it needs (and I so very rarely say this sort of thing) to be a little more mainstream. As in "Hairspray," the basic story follows a clash of cultures. As in "Hairspray," there is an uptight mama who wants to protect her daughter from a boy whom Mama sees as wrong. And there are a group of kids from the wrong side of the tracks who teach the elite (or at least some of them) how to loosen up and go with the flow. But in "Hairspray," the bad kids are "bad" merely because of surface differences. Inside, they're good kids.

In "Cry-Baby," the "Drapes", the outcasts who run with Cry-Baby Walker are actually delinquents. They are thieves who settle things with switchblades. Pepper is a pregnant 16-year old who's not sure who the father of her baby is, and proudly smokes and drinks, even while she is being rolled into the delivery room on a gurney. (The show is set in 1954, but the attitude Pepper takes is that she seems to know all this is bad for her baby but does it anyway because it's the rebel thing to do.) Mona, who has a deep scar running from above her left eye and across the nose and down her right cheek, is called "Hatchet-Face," but proudly claims "I'm ugly inside, too!" Even at the end of the show, after some court-ordered reconstructive surgery, she gleefully insists "But I'm still ugly inside!"

Maybe deep down inside I'm really a square, but I think a mainstream audience might have a hard time accepting this motley collection of refugees from juvie as heroes. Yes, they are wrongly jailed and Cry-Baby's birth stain (his parents were pacifists, framed for a fatal arson fire and executed on hearsay) is cleansed by the time the curtain falls, and the Squares learn the Drapes have something valuable to offer -- even if it's just a hot beat and Cry-Baby's undying love for Allison. But I just have this gut feeling that the characters are going to be a little too alternative to appeal to the bridge and tunnel crowd (and the muggles from middle America) that are required to keep a show this expensive on the boards long enough to make back its investment.

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