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A little bad taste would go a long way

John Waters' 'Cry-Baby' loses its campy edge on stage. It's tame enough for squares.

November 23, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

"Sweet and innocent" is not a label one associates with John Waters, the enfant terrible of cult cinema who first made his name in the early '70s with gross-out flicks celebrating every sallow hue of perversion. Not even the mellower, mainstream version of his style, which emerged in the late '80s with "Hairspray," could be described in this cheery vein. But in "Cry-Baby," the musical adaptation of his 1990 film, which had its world premiere this week at the La Jolla Playhouse, something quite unexpected has occurred -- a Waters property has been aesthetically pasteurized so even a team of Disney execs could watch without blushing.

Naturally, there are a few naughty double-entendres in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's lightly amusing book, and David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger's droll songs elbow-nudge with bawdy innuendo. But Waters' camp sensibility has been virtually drained and his gentle sendup of 1950s teen movies is played bizarrely straight. The result, a kind of cartoonish love letter to the Eisenhower era, seems less edgy than the original Broadway production of "Grease," which, incidentally, premiered the same year as "Pink Flamingos," Waters' notorious "exercise in bad taste."

No surprise that 2007 looks a lot less radical than 1972, but could anyone have predicted the way even trailblazing counterculture types would one day be swallowed by the mega-musical money machine?

This isn't to say that the creators should start sobbing into their pillows because their Broadway dreams are a bust. There's plenty of theatrical pleasure to be had in this admittedly slight and predictable tale about a Baltimore beauty who falls for a juvenile delinquent heartthrob of the 1954 variety.

What's ultimately needed, however, to get this show up to the level of "Hairspray" -- which has a far more intriguing book and varied score -- goes beyond the fine-tuning of rockabilly numbers and plot points. The production, directed in a cute, candy-coated manner by Mark Brokaw, cries out for the same thing that its lovely goody-two-shoes ingenue, Allison (Elizabeth Stanley), wants for herself -- an "attitude overhaul."

To put it plainly, the work right now seems like the product of the conformist white-bread Squares, when it's their lifelong enemy, the hoodlum Drapes, who have the power to really rouse us.

These two camps continue to battle it out in O'Donnell and Meehan's reworking of the screenplay, which oddly leaves out the best bits in the movie. For example, Waters' brilliant opening in which the teens line up for their vaccines is transformed into an "anti-polio picnic" presided over by Allison's snooty grandmother, Mrs. Vernon-Williams (Harriet Harris). The Squares -- led by Baldwin (Christopher J. Hanke), Allison's obnoxiously bland beau -- score laughs, singing in the dorky style of collegiate groups about the joys of being "so happy and homogenous." But the new setup doesn't establish the claustrophobic high school atmosphere that makes adolescence such a pressure-cooker of social anxiety and pimply rebellion.

The other great Waters moment that's strangely missing is the one that's set in an orphanage where would-be parents can window-shop for the caged child of their dreams. This creepily hilarious sequence isn't matched by any inspired lunacy onstage, a deficiency that's harder to overlook than the lack of starry stunt-casting, which summoned such D-listers as Traci Lords, Troy Donahue, Joey Heatherton and Patricia Hearst, among long-dead-and-buried others, to provide that weird texture Waters' movies are renowned for.

What the musical does possess, however, are two likable leads in James Snyder, who takes on the tough-guy title role originated by Johnny Depp, and Stanley, who plays nicey-nice Allison, the young woman desperate to set her inner bad girl "out on bail." The contrast between these two characters should be more accentuated -- one has to keep reminding oneself that Snyder's Cry-Baby isn't an honors student from a respectable middle-class enclave -- but only the coldest of the cold wouldn't wish them to enjoy a long and sloppy tongue kiss at the end.

The addictive bliss of Frenching, since we're already on the subject, is juicily captured in "Can I Kiss You . . .?," a ditty in which Cry-Baby croons in celebration of what lurks at the bottom of his mouth: "It's moist and it's pink; it's a muscle, I think / It's as smooth as the blanket I brung." And like most of the songs by Javerbaum (an executive producer on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show") and Schlesinger (a member of the bands Fountains of Wayne and Ivy), the daftly humorous lyrics impress more than the rhythmic rehashing of the poodle-skirt era.

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