Saturday, April 26, 2008

Make your mother sigh

I saw the new musical Cry-Baby a few weeks ago, early in its preview period, and although I made notes, I never got around to writing about it for you all. I wasn’t sure I would, but while I was still procrastinating, the show opened, and I broke my usual rule and read Ben Brantley’s review before finishing my own. That reminded me why I do this in the first place: his review seemed much more interested in being cute than in being fair, and it didn’t reflect the show I saw. Cry-Baby isn’t an instant classic, but there’s much more worthy of comment and analysis than Brantley acknowledges, and given what so often passes for a decent musical on Broadway, I don’t think we can afford to ignore the merits of a show that actually has a few.

I should say, right off, that I don’t completely disagree with Brantley’s final verdict; he says the show is “tasteless,” by which he means “flavorless,” and I’m afraid he’s basically right. There’s much more to say, though, about why it turned out that way, and Brantley doesn’t do the writers justice. The material isn’t the problem, for the most part. The first and most important thing you need to know about Cry-Baby is that the score, by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, is quite good. Brantley dismisses it completely, which is a shame; the songs are as well-formed as anything Marc Shaiman wrote for Hairspray. Not as sugary, of course, but they shouldn’t be, and what they lack in instant hummability they make up in (relative) depth. That is, they play like character pieces instead of advertising jingles. They use a pop form, but move the story forward. And the lyrics are terrific. The titles alone made me laugh out loud as I glanced at my Playbill before the show –- I won’t spoil the fun -– but the really good news is, I didn’t stop laughing after the first chorus. The songs are more than just jokes. The humor is topical and self-aware, but not obnoxiously so; it never threatens to undermine the show, which is rare in the contemporary world of “comic” musicals. And the lyrics are technically flawless, never fighting against the music (read about the authors’ praiseworthy high standards here; hear them on NPR's Fresh Air here). Schlesinger and Javerbaum tell their story through spot-on pastiches of 1950s musical styles: close-harmony corn (a la Forever Plaid) for the whitebread “Whiffles”; country-western balladry (a la Patsy Cline) for Lenora; heartbroken-on-Prom-night lamenting (a la Shelley Fabares) for Allison; three-chord rockabilly (a la Elvis Presley) for Cry-Baby himself. But that last one poses a problem that contributes to the show’s weak presence: Elvis-style rock songs are a lot less fun to parody than the era’s more expansive pop styles. There’s not much to them, and that’s the whole joke. So Cry-Baby, who should be the most interesting character onstage, gets the least exciting songs; I was never looking forward to his next number, and I was never satisfied that he deserved my affection or attention more than the characters whose songs really entertained.

Partly as a result of that, I never totally understood why Cry-Baby is the title character in the first place. His entrance is strong enough, but the social criticism he spouts in “Watch Your Ass” suggests a sharp satirical perspective that the rest of the show doesn't fully deliver, and both character and actor (James Snyder) lack the Fonzie-style magnetism the plot calls for. The casting, in this and nearly every other role, feels, not terrible, but slightly imperfect; I couldn’t shake the impression that I was watching a touring cast several months into its run, which is perplexing, since I was actually watching the Broadway cast at what ought to have been its freshest point, a few weeks before the show even opened. Snyder and his leading lady, Elizabeth Stanley, are perfectly competent and quite likeable, but they fall just short of the star quality this show needs. The rest of the casting feels similarly second-rate; the chorus is colorless, and some of the “teenagers” look middle-aged. Two scene-stealing performances make that all the more obvious: Harriet Harris, playing Mrs. Vernon-Williams, is more at home than anyone else onstage, and the audience responds. And Alli Mauzey, as Lenora, brings a refreshing blast of personality to all of her scenes. Christopher J. Hanke, as Baldwin, grew on me as the show went on; his duet with Lenora may be the show's most successful number, short of the finale.

Brantley notes Harris’s star turn, but claims “the text doesn’t support her,” which isn’t what I saw. Harris finds and lands every one of her laugh lines, but she didn’t put them there. The book, by Mark O’Donnell (whom I’m proud to know) and Thomas Meehan, is efficient and sharp; it keeps things moving; it has a fluid relationship with the score (more so than their book for Hairspray, probably because this show’s score has a stronger presence), and it showcases O’Donnell’s particular talent for daffy dialogue and smart satire that lands without leaving a bitter aftertaste. Too many of the jokes miss their mark, but Harris’s success proves it isn’t the book’s fault.

So who’s responsible for Cry-Baby’s failure to catch fire? The casting seemed off, but it wasn’t just that. I couldn’t tell who the audience is supposed to be: certainly not the preteen girls who’ve made a smash out of Hairspray. It’s too edgy. At the same time, I suspect the show is too aggressive for gray-haired patrons, and it may be a little too youth-focused to sell itself as a show for grownups. Cry-Baby is essentially a much sharper rewrite of Grease, but bluntness gives Grease a broader potential appeal, and this production doesn’t create a world as self-contained and vibrant as that of Rydell High. It misses the mark especially with Cry-Baby’s gang, the “Drapes,” who are so thoroughly off-putting I kept hoping they wouldn’t return. I haven’t seen the Waters film, but surely these counter-cultural characters should be at least a little likeable, right? In place of Grease’s sassy Pink Ladies, whom you’re tempted to side with even when they’re cruelly picking on poor, harmless Sandy, Cry-Baby has a collection of aggressively unpleasant females being nasty for no reason and reactionary in the absence of much to react against; the shape of “squareness” in 1950s Baltimore is very well-defined, if only by the book and song lyrics, but the Drapes are as vague and motiveless as their name suggests.

What Cry-Baby needed was a director who knew how to bring a big, smart, satirical musical to life. Someone who’d pull together a cast that matches the material and figure out exactly what response he wanted from the audience; who could make every joke find its mark, and sharpen the focus of every musical number. I can’t begin to imagine how Mark Brokaw got the job, because nothing in his (admittedly impressive) resume suggests that he’d be a good fit. In Brantley’s words: “Mr. Brokaw, a gifted director of small-scale quirky plays, seems incapable of imposing a cohesive sensibility here.” Why would he be? Which of those small-scale quirky plays would have prepared him to put up a noisy musical on the stage of the very impersonal Marquis Theatre?

So, as I said, in the end I’m not a lot more positive than Brantley about what I saw onstage. A lot of bad decisions were made (and a lot of decisions should have been made and weren’t) in the process of bringing Cry-Baby to Broadway. But I’ve seen quite a few new musicals in the past several years, and very seldom have I come away excited about the creative team in general and the songwriting in particular. I was consistently impressed by the quality of Cry-Baby’s score and consistently amused by its book. In the world of musicals-based-on-movies, that strikes me as a small miracle. So I hoped the professional reviews would acknowledge that. I shouldn’t be surprised that Brantley didn’t, since, as regular readers of the NYT’s Arts section know, what gives a show flavor for Brantley is a big star, ideally a female star. Performances are what he likes to analyze, and Cry-Baby doesn’t have much to offer in that department, so he doesn’t find much to say about it, besides “Eh, don’t bother.” Compare that with his relatively charitable attitude toward Legally Blonde, a show with songs so disappointingly underwritten I left at intermission, bored to tears; and also consider his charitably light touch with Little Women, absolutely the worst Broadway musical I had ever seen until this week (stay tuned to hear what took the title). Yes, this is a strangely lackluster production, but the show itself holds up better than most, and Javerbaum and Schlesinger are a very promising pair. If you’re a fan of musical theatre and it’s been a long time since you’ve felt hopeful about the state of the showtune, Cry-Baby is a show you ought to see.

P.S. At least one critic liked it even more than I did: Terry Teachout has some interesting insights.

ETA: Saw it again, 9 weeks later: Here's my re-review.


Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

Thanks for that! I've been toying with the idea of seeing it ever since I heard the songwriters on Fresh Air. And I'm bemused by the fact that one of them is from Fountains of Wayne.

Mollie said...

It's definitely a good time. I hope you'll get your chance! (There's even a nun-joke, though a pretty weak one.) And yeah, one guy from Fountains of Wayne and the other from The Daily Show -- that's a promising team!