Christopher J. Hanke, Elizabeth Stanley, James Snyder,
and Alli Mauzey in Cry-Baby
(© Kevin Berne)
Christopher J. Hanke, Elizabeth Stanley, James Snyder,
and Alli Mauzey in Cry-Baby
(© Kevin Berne)
When a show starts with a scene set at an "Anti-Polio Picnic and Vaccination Carnival." in a lovely, pastel colored park, you know you are not in Kansas anymore. With Cry-Baby, now getting its pre-Broadway world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, we are in 1954 Baltimore -- as seen through the twisted, subversive, and warped view of the King of Trash himself, John Waters. As with their previous, equally successful screen-to-stage adaptation of Water's Hairspray, book writers Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan have softened a lot of Waters' film's rough edges, making this delightful new musical more accessible and nearly coherent.

Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker (James Snyder) is a teen rebel orphan, with only his perpetually knocked-up sister Pepper (Carly Jibson) and his misfit gang of Drapes to keep him company. "Cry-Baby" is an ironic nickname; Wade has refused to cry since his parents were given the electric chair as Communist saboteurs. The Red Scare and the red-baiting is a new and pertinent plot twist, although it does require a lot of exposition to wrap it up neatly. Still, that theme fits in perfectly with the conform-to-the-bland squareness preached by town grande dame Mrs. Vernon Williams (the always delicious Harriet Harris) and practiced to bland perfection by the blond, besweatered Baldwin (Christopher J. Hanke), leader of the Squares.

Of course, opposites attract like gangbusters as good but wanna-be-bad girl Allison (a perky and plucky Elizabeth Stanley) falls for the swiveling hips and artfully spit-curled bravado of Cry-Baby. Snyder brings an abundance of star power and vocal prowess to the title role, and this duo has so much great chemistry together that the audience really roots for a happy ending for them.

The songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger run the gamut from rockabilly, "Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)" to soul, "Jukebox Jamboree" to Four Freshman preppiness, "Squeaky Clean." The love ballads "I'm Infected," "Let's Disappear" and "Can I Kiss You... ?(with tongue)" are infectious, fun, and just a bit bent. Standout performer Alli Mauzey as Lenora, Cry-Baby's delusional stalker, delivers the Patsy Cline tinged "Screw Loose" with gutsy, twangy abandon, and joins with Hanke in the delightful dream/nightmare wedding sequence "All In My Head." Harris' comic brilliance shines in "I Did Something Wrong... Once."

The composers' loving but cynical view of the rose-colored world of the 1950s is amusingly showcased in "Thanks for the Nifty Country!" and the finale, "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again." But the crowning jewel has to be "Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe," sung by the cast to open Act Two.

Director Mark Brokaw skillfully leads his talented cast through this fun-filled evening with tongue firmly in cheek. They deliver their numbers and dialogue with heartfelt sincerity that makes them funnier than if they attempted to camp it up. The pace is swift and the show's momentum never slackens. Choreographer Rob Ashford and the talented ensemble of dancers really shake their groove thing in period style. For example, "Jailyard Jubilee" is a loving tribute to Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" -- only these cons tap with license plates on their feet.

Scott Pask contributed the rainbow-hued storybook-like scenic design, which was artfully lit by Howell Binkley. Catherine Zuber's costumes are period perfection from the petticoat-fluffed skirts and collegiate sweaters to the skin-tight Capri pants and leather jackets.

Still, some fine tuning needs to be done before hitting the Great White Way. In the large cast, several get slighted with thinly drawn characters. Jibson, Lacey Kohl as Wanda, and Cristen Paige as Mona don't have much to do except act as back up singers for Cry-Baby. As Dupree, Cry-Baby's best friend, Chester Gregory II seems to be around just to give out with some Little Richard squeals. In fleshing out the show's three leading roles, which makes for a tighter, more comprehensible story, these supporting characters got lost.