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Can it take hold like 'Hairspray'?

It's time to reap or weep as John Waters' 'Cry-Baby' gets its sassy Broadway makeover.

November 18, 2007|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — To an inventory of bare necessities a big song-and-dance musical requires for a rehearsal -- upright piano, sprung floor, athletic tape, bottled water -- the cast of the new musical "Cry-Baby" can add one essential provision: breath mints, and lots of them.

"I had some bad onions on my burger," confesses lead actress Elizabeth Stanley by way of explanation for a handful of Altoids, which her costar, James Snyder, will be grateful she's popped when they embark on their next, er, duet.

Standing on a movable wooden platform in a sprawling seventh-floor rehearsal room overlooking Times Square, Snyder and Stanley, backed by a chorus of lovebird couples, get down to business with a dramatic, 1950s-style power ballad worthy of Roy Orbison, though its lyrics are unlikely to have been heard on the radio in 1954:

It's moist and it's pink

It's a muscle, I think

It's as smooth as the blanket I brung

But it lives all alone

With no friends of its own

Girl, can I kiss you with tongue?

"That's the lyric I wrote that made John Waters say, 'Hire that guy,' " said David Javerbaum, a writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" who teamed with Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger to write the songs for this new "Cry-Baby." Based on Waters' 1990 film starring a young, pre-Tim Burtonized Johnny Depp, "Cry-Baby" opens at the La Jolla Playhouse Nov. 21 and heads for Broadway next spring.

His own big shoes to fill

Is Broadway ready to give another of Waters' funky valentines a sloppy wet kiss? "Hairspray," based on Waters' 1988 hit movie, netted eight Tonys in 2003, is currently running in New York, London and South Africa, and this year spawned its own movie adaptation. Given that precedent, "Cry-Baby" is likely to face the kind of high expectations, and invidious comparisons, that have greeted Mel Brooks, who just followed up his phenom "The Producers" with a musical version of "Young Frankenstein."

"When I gave my speech to the investors, I stood up and said, 'I know what you're all thinking, and yes -- lightning can strike twice,' " said Waters, who held up a Daily News cover showing the Empire State Building hit by lightning. "I understand that, like it or not, it's going to be compared to 'Hairspray.' But this one is more John Waters-esque, in a way. It's ruder."

"Affectionately rude," is how Adam Epstein, one of the show's three producers, said he prefers to characterize the show, which also includes such song titles as "You Gotta Watch Your Ass," "I'm Infected" and "Screw Loose." True, "Cry-Baby" doesn't get much rougher than some French kissing, cigarette puffing and the occasional drawn switchblade -- and as Waters points out, "Hairspray" was PG, while "Cry-Baby" was PG-13.

"I joke that 'Hairspray' is the musical every high school will do, and 'Cry-Baby' is the one every high school will want to do but their principal won't let them," says Mark O'Donnell, who co-wrote the scripts for both stage adaptations with Thomas Meehan.

It's not just competition from another Waters-based show that makes "Cry-Baby" a gamble for Epstein and co-producers Allan S. Gordon and Elan V. McAllister, all of whom also worked on "Hairspray." There is also the unavoidable presence on Broadway of an- other leather-and-poodle-skirts romp through the '50s, "Grease."

What's more, unlike that show's bubble gum-pop score or, say, the show-tune-heavy "Bye Bye Birdie," the sound of "Cry-Baby" is straight-up rockabilly, boogie-woogie and white-bread doo-wop, courtesy of pop chameleon Schlesinger, a musical theater newcomer who has written songs to order for films such as "That Thing You Do!" and "Josie and the Pussycats."

Meehan and O'Donnell, whom Epstein felt "channeled John Waters' language perfectly" on "Hairspray," were brought back, but otherwise "Cry-Baby" has a new creative team, including songwriters Schlesinger and Javerbaum, choreographer Rob Ashford, director Mark Brokaw and designers Scott Pask (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Howell Binkley (lights).

"This team is so eclectic," says Christopher Ashley, artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse, which has been a producing partner since a workshop earlier this year. "The mix of people is very different from the 'Hairspray' mix."

"We've got some new and some old blood, and I think they all understand my sense of humor and want to keep it in there," said Waters, who, in contrast to Brooks, is more an executive producer of these stage adaptations than a hands-on creative collaborator.

The question, then, may not be so much whether this new gang can pull off another boffo hit, but whether Waters' brand of nicely nasty Americana, so well-worn in "Hairspray," can bowl over Broadway again.

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