No real tears are shed in “Cry-Baby,” the exuberantly witty musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1990 social satire in pre-Broadway tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse. That’s because the style forbids anything quite so vulnerable. Employing ’50s musical-comedy conventions to skewer conventional morality then and now, tuner offers laughs aplenty, powerhouse choreography and a sizzling rockabilly-and-blues-inspired score — but it lacks a single sentimental bone in its body. While the show is never exactly mean, it’s not warm either, and it will be interesting to see how auds take to a hilarious romp that rarely stops, or stoops, to touch them where they live.
Wryly ironic sensibility is derived partly from Waters but mostly from satirical newspaper the Onion and TV’s “The Daily Show,” on whose staffs co-songwriter David Javerbaum has been a mainstay. Structure echoes that of all those Elvis Presley musicals in which a swingin’ outsider rocks Middle America; tonally, the tuner is closest to the Zucker brothers’ laugh-a-minute Elvis spoof “Top Secret!”
Baltimore circa 1954 is the war zone for delinquent “Drapes” and conservative “Squares,” with the first shots fired during the Women’s Club’s Anti-Polio Vaccination Picnic. Grande dame Mrs. Vernon-Williams (Harriet Harris) presides over strict segregation of the town’s classes, at least until the red-jacketed Drapes barge in to advise a sea of pastel-clad Squares to “Watch Your Ass.”
Enter Wade Walker (James Snyder), “the most popular loner in town,” a doe-eyed greaser with James Dean’s mien and Elvis’ pelvis. Ironic nickname “Cry-Baby” alludes to the blockage of his lachrymal glands since his parents’ long-ago execution as communist traitors. (The blitheness with which this Rosenbergs-tinged plot point is bandied about says as much about show’s tone as anything else.)
He and the dowager’s granddaughter, Allison (Elizabeth Stanley), fall in love at first sight — don’t stop to ask why they’ve never met before — as events sweep the warring factions through a series of set pieces from hot-rockin’ Turkey Point (“the riffraff Riviera”) to Juvie Prison, where Cry-Baby is incarcerated on a trumped-up charge, to the Fourth of July finale at Star Spangled Funland.
In their first collaboration since “Hairspray,” Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan offer a genial book that amasses wordplay and non sequiturs in a way Gotham won’t have seen since S.J. Perelman’s “The Beauty Part.” Libretto kids Cold War-era follies while looking forward confidently to a time when, as the finale puts it, “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again.” (In the future, cast predicts, America will “give the gift of freedom to a people far away” and be presented with flowers and unicorns.) Like “Grease,” show ends with the profession that all of us will go together, but “Cry-Baby” adds a distinct raised eyebrow of disbelief.
Pastichey songs by Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger of alt-rock band Fountains of Wayne consistently invest show with early-rock-era rhythm, making it easy for choreographer Rob Ashford to knock our bobby sox off. Assigning aggressive athleticism to the Drapes while putting the Squares through more formal paces, he wittily turns group numbers into Jerome Robbins duking it out with Onna White — an evocation of the musicals’ Golden Age echoed by the symmetrical painted borders and flown flattage of Scott Pask’s dreamily attractive sets.
Eschewing camp, helmer Mark Brokaw maintains a crisp pace and stylistic consistency at the price of full emotional involvement. Nothing comes of Allison’s announcement that “I’m a good girl but I want to be bad” as she remains in high heels. Leads get not a single romantic ballad; their one slow tune, Wade’s “Can I Kiss You,” asks for tongue, not tenderness.
Snyder and Stanley are so likable that their lack of romantic chemistry — she’s somewhat too mature-looking for him, and their subtext drips “We’re in lust” rather than true love — may not bother auds. But show culminates in no rush of feeling for thwarted love reunited, and Cry-Baby’s tears carry no weight when they finally materialize. It’s all good fun, but never transformative.
Ensemble standouts include Harris, indispensably carrying off lengthy wrap-up exposition in a voice redolent of — talk about channeling the 1950s — Elizabeth Patterson, who played the babysitter Mrs. Trumbull on “I Love Lucy.” And while he never seems to make a difference to the story, Chester Gregory II (another “Hairspray” vet) is spellbinding as a Little Richard clone.
Show’s individual showstopper is Alli Mauzey as Lenora, a teen with a psychotic passion for Cry-Baby. She rocks the plaintive steel-guitar ballad “Screw Loose” — think of Patsy Cline dropped on her head; later she soars in duet with Allison’s would-be suitor, super-Square Baldwin (Christopher J. Hanke, earning more laughs than his stock character might otherwise warrant) on “All in My Head.”
But the high point is the prison break, beginning with convicts’ stamping out license plates with rhythmic menace (they’re “A Little Upset”) before exploding across Baltimore in light and silhouette. Ashford sends escapees and cops (as well as street signs) careening back and forth to beggar the legend of Robbins’ fabled Keystone Kops number from “High Button Shoes.”
Sentiment is still taboo, but the sequence taps into the thrilling emotionality traditionally associated with the tuners “Cry-Baby” has been constructed to subvert.