Story: Allison Vernon-Williams is a junior at a Baltimore finishing school for girls with a loving grandmother, a steady boyfriend and an inner track to the American dream for young women in 1954. But while Allison is comfortable with who she is and what she has, she yearns for the adventures experienced by a group of delinquents known as the ‘drapes,’ the counter-culture competition of the ‘squares’ with whom Allison socializes. While her rigid boyfriend Baldwin seethes at the sight of Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker, a handsome drape and rising young musician, Allison finds Cry-Baby endearing and attractive.
Sensing that his girlfriend is falling for the guy whose pacifist parents were sent to the electric chair for allegedly setting a fire in a factory that killed a night watchman, Baldwin accuses Cry-Baby of following in his family’s conflagrant footsteps and starting a blaze outside the popular Turkey Point club, where Cry-Baby’s pal Dupree spins rock ‘n’ roll records as he aspires to his own career as a singer. Allison nonetheless sticks with Cry-Baby until Lenora Frigid, a mentally unbalanced teen with an unwavering crush on Cry-Baby, shows up at Cry-Baby’s court appearance ostensibly pregnant with his child as well as wearing the same ‘unique’ gold-plated guitar pick he had given Allison.
So what’s up? Is Cry-Baby the tender, decent guy who captured Allison’s heart or a two-timing arsonist?
Highlights: Based on a 1990 movie by John Waters that starred a young Johnny Depp fresh from his star-making role on TV’s 21 Jump Street, this rollicking musical features a book by the same team that made Waters’ film Hairspray into a smash Broadway musical. After a short run in San Diego in late 2007, Cry-Baby faltered in its 2008 production on Broadway, closing after just 113 performances.
Now, a version by New Line Artistic director Scott Miller approved by the creators with a reduced cast and new orchestrations by original orchestrator Chris Jahnke is enjoying a glorious and infectious American regional premiere by New Line Theatre. Under Miller’s devoted and painstaking direction, this Cry-Baby rocks the room with an effervescent energy, exploding across the stage through an array of dazzling moves choreographed by Robin Michelle Berger.
Other Info: Composer Adam Schlesinger collaborated with lyricist David Javerbaum on Cry-Baby along with book authors Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who formerly paired on Hairspray. In many ways, Cry-Baby is clearly superior to Hairspray, which suffers from a stilted text even if its music is often high-spirited. In the case of Cry-Baby, though, the silly story serves suitably as backdrop for Javerbaum’s witty and clever lyrics and for Schlesinger’s catchy and spirited melodies. Blending a number of musical genres ranging from rockabilly to old-time rock ‘n’ roll to humorous barbershop quartet ditties, Schlesinger sets the tone for this easy-going and fun-loving romp.
Opening night unfortunately featured the unwelcome intrusion of New Line’s occasional nemesis, a sound system that had the on-stage band too often drowning out the efforts of the hard-working cast. It seemed much improved in the second act and hopefully will prove mellow in subsequent performances. Conductor Justin Smolik and his talented combo at stage left provided a most melodious accompaniment for the performers throughout, with pianist Smolik joined by lead guitarist D. Mike Bauer, rhythm guitarist Joe Isaacs, Robert Vinson on reeds, bass player Dave Hall and percussionist Clancy Newell.
Amy Kelly’s amusing costumes accentuate the corniness of the scheming Baldwin and his vanilla buddies, The Whiffles, as well as the rough-and-tumble looks of the girl drapes, including facially disfigured Mona “Hatchet Face” Malnorowksi, along with Cry-Baby’s ‘rebel’ attire and Allison’s good-girl poodle skirts. Alison Helmer provides some amusing props and Sean Savoie suitably lights the proceedings on Scott L. Schoonover’s rather bland and non-descript cardboard set design, which nonetheless underscores the comic-book aspect of the story and its characters.
Ryan Foizey sizzles in the title role, bringing charisma, charm and good-natured guile to the part as well as a heck of a knack for rock tunes. Taylor Pietz pulls double duty, demonstrating her remarkable voice in a range from operatic to lusty troubadour while also shepherding the large cast through Berger’s strenuous and stylish moves as the show’s dance captain.
There’s comic relief aplenty courtesy of Terrie Carolan’s wild-eyed and manic-moving Lenora Frigid and Zachary Allen Farmer, who takes on a variety of roles with his usual polish and impish humor, although his Judge Stone seems far less doddering on the bench than in a later appearance with Allison’s grandmother.
Cindy Duggan has a grand time as Allison’s proper but understanding grandmother, who reveals a troubling element in her own past, and Mike Dowdy relishes his role as the buffoonish villain, Allison’s smarmy boyfriend Baldwin. Ari Scott delights as Cry-Baby’s pal Dupree Dupree, while Marcy Wiegert, Chrissy Young and Sarah Porter camp it up in high style as the girl drapes, contrasting sharply with the nerdy Whiffles played by Evan Fornachon, Devon Norris and Christopher Strawhun. Jenifer Sabbert and Alexandra Taylor complete the effective cast as both square girls and drape girls.
Miller has a penchant for mining rare musical gems and, sometimes, resuscitating them from their moribund beginnings. Such is the case with this Cry-Baby, which will leave you shedding only tears of laughter.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: March 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24
Tickets: $10-$20; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg