As the title character memorably told his good-girl-gone-bad sweetheart in John Waters’ 1990 movie, “You got it, Allison. You got it raw.” But one problem for “Cry-Baby” was that the underground trashmeister’s rebel rawness was diluted into benign, kitschy satire in his attempt to follow “Hairspray” with a further step toward the mainstream. So it’s perhaps not surprising that watered-down Waters has yielded a flavorless Broadway musical that revels in its down-and-dirtiness yet remains stubbornly synthetic. There’s a lot of talent, sass and sweat onstage, particularly in the dance department, plus a sprinkling of wit in the show’s good-natured vulgarity. But somehow, it never quite ignites.
Waters’ first film after the death of his muse, Divine, “Cry-Baby” was a fun parody of Eisenhower-era values, but it crucially lacked the larger-than-life heart so often provided by the 350-pound tranny superstar. And despite the charisma of Johnny Depp, riding the “21 Jump Street” wave, the movie’s star-crossed lovers were a lot less captivating than its freakshow supporting gallery, from Susan Tyrrell as a dirtbag granny to Ricki Lake as a fertile teen mother to porn princess Traci Lords as a lock-up-your-sons sexpot.
That same imbalance plagues the legit version. Like “Hairspray” before it, the stage retread of “Cry-Baby” was adapted by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan from a screen property that was already a musical, ditching the film’s numbers for a new song score. But while “Hairspray” provided someone to root for in a zaftig underdog on an integrationist mission, not to mention a lovable mother mortified by her girth but itching to reveal the light she’s been hiding under Baltimore’s bushel, “Cry-Baby” was and is a generic parody of teen-delinquent movies, in search of a plot.
Leader of greaser gang the Drapes, Wade Walker (James Snyder) earned his nickname from his inability to produce tears since his Rosenberg-reminiscent, pacifist parents were fried in the electric chair after being framed as Communist bombers. Instantly smitten fellow orphan Allison Vernon-Williams (Elizabeth Stanley) is the Sandra Dee type, anxious to escape the starchy country club and watchful eyes of her socially sainted grandmother (Harriet Harris) to swap saliva with Cry-Baby.
Given that neither lover ever wrestles with any real uncertainty about crossing the boundaries between Drapes and Squares, the conflicts dotting the road to their inevitable union are mostly circumstantial.
Snyder smolders with mock intensity as the troubled outsider with the Elvis moves, supplying easy charm in his line readings and musical numbers. But like Amy Locane in the movie, Stanley struggles to make anything out of bland Allison, a personality-bypass who stops the show dead anytime she’s centerstage. “Nobody Gets Me,” she sings, reprising Cry-Baby’s anthem of the misunderstood, but Allison is such a bore there’s nothing to get.
It’s no shock that Waters (and, in turn, O’Donnell and Meehan) should steer our sympathies toward the stigmatized lowlifes while exposing the white-bread conservatives as underhanded bullies, bigots and hypocrites. But as a satire on class barriers, the show lacks teeth, and despite parading out ’50s accoutrements from an iron lung to a bomb shelter and gas masks, its affection for the era lacks both an insightful point of view and a contemporary echo.
Buoyant musical numbers might have helped camouflage the insipid plot — as they occasionally did in the movie — but the derivative songs by “The Daily Show” exec producer and former head writer David Javerbaum and Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger offer interchangeable period pastiche of rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop, rockabilly and R&B, enlivened at times by touches of cheeky humor in the lyrics.
Most of the electricity onstage comes courtesy of Rob Ashford’s raunchy choreography, especially as executed by the limber male ensemble. Cry-Baby’s escape from juvie lockup in “Jailyard Jubilee” is a terrific display of movement-based storytelling, full of lightning transitions and funny asides, that hustles along the narrative in a way the songs here rarely do.
And the prison-yard dance with the guys wearing license plates for tap shoes is a rousing lesson from the “Stomp” school. But when Ashford’s muscular input is not front and center, the action often slows to a crawl, exposing the book’s meat-free bones and suggesting musicals may not be director Mark Brokaw’s forte.
With only a wan romance between cardboard cutouts to drive the scattershot action, the creatives invest heavily in supporting characters, obtaining help from some engaging performers.
Christopher J. Hanke strikes an amusing balance of squeaky-cleanness and meanspirited smugness as Allison’s Square suitor; Carly Jibson (a former Tracy in “Hairspray” on Broadway) is a funny, diminutive ball of slutty attitude in the role played by Lake in the movie; and Alli Mauzey injects off-the-wall loopiness into Lenora, her unrequited and unhinged love for Cry-Baby outlined in “Screw Loose,” a subversive spin on Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
The ever-reliable Harris also demonstrates her estimable comic chops with the drollest of deadpans, gamely leading the crowd in the zippy opener, “The Anti-Polio Picnic,” or tiptoeing through the tricky wordplay of her confession to a past moral transgression in “I Did Something Wrong…Once.”
The standout, however, is Chester Gregory II (another “Hairspray” alumnus, headed to the “Shrek” musical to play Donkey later this summer) as Cry-Baby’s buddy Dupree, a coyote-voiced crooner who’s Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Cab Calloway rolled into one dynamite package.
There’s also plenty to look at in Scott Pask’s playfully theatrical sets (the mossy, willow-framed makeout haven Turkey Point is a hoot), Catherine Zuber’s natty costumes and Howell Binkley’s vibrant lighting. But without a central romance that cooks, the show’s pleasures evaporate as they unfold. Javerbaum and Schlesinger angle to send the audience out on a high with the good-time closer “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again,” but unlike “Hairspray,” where “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was a mandate to celebrate, we don’t care enough about anyone onstage in “Cry-Baby” to share their joy.
Inevitable as they are, the comparisons to the previous Broadway musical fashioned from a Waters film are secondary to the grab bag of elements in “Cry-Baby” that recall everything from “Grease” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to “All Shook Up” and “The Wedding Singer.” Whatever its inspirations, this vanilla show lacks a fresh identity of its own.