Monday, June 9, 2008

I'm infected

In the midst of my trips to a number of nominated shows, I found time for a second trip to see Cry-Baby. I remain bewildered by the lack of enthusiasm I've seen, at least in the reviews I read, for the quality of the songwriting in this musical. The first time I saw it, I went in prepared to cut it some slack; I wasn't expecting genius, and I was willing to settle for anything better than what passes for an "original score" over at Legally Blonde. But no slack-cutting was necessary. There were no sloppy punctuation or grammar errors, or lyrics where unstressed syllables fell on stressed notes, or "witty" list songs that lacked anything approaching wit, or musical passages lifted directly from preexisting songs, or "rhymes" that are not rhymes, or any of the other distracting tics I have seen songwriters get away with on Broadway recently. The second time, having been surprised by the dismissive comments in the reviews, I went in thinking I might have been too easily impressed the first time. But I found the score every bit as enjoyable as I'd remembered -- more, in fact, because the writers have made a few changes since then, and they're all good ones. The performance of Cry-Baby I saw last week was an improvement in nearly every way over the one I saw back when they were just starting previews.

Some of that could be chalked up to the number of performances logged -- the actors have settled into their characters, found the right rhythm for their jokes, learned to find the energy in the unforgiving, intimacy-killing Marquis Theatre. James Snyder and Elizabeth Stanley shone brighter and held my attention far more firmly than they did nine weeks ago. Harriet Harris was basically the same, which is to say excellent, but she no longer stood out from everything around her. The other performers I praised the first time, Christopher J. Hanke and Alli Mauzey, are even more fun now, and it no longer seems like Chester Gregory II is loitering for most of the show. The whole thing felt tighter and stronger, and it kept building up steam right through the closing number -- which must be the best show-ender of any recent musical comedy. It's a great example of why I'm so impressed with what Schlesinger and Javerbaum have done: first of all, it's called "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again." I laughed at that title before the show even started. It's set to a memorable, catchy tune that captures the mood exactly, and it turns out to be far more than a one-gag song. On one level it's a joke about the fatuity of musical theatre conventions. But the characters in the show don't totally realize that, so it doesn't undermine the happy ending; they are able to celebrate without irony. Meanwhile, as they take turns listing, in verse after verse, all the bad things that will no longer be allowed to happen, the song takes on a sharp, even painful edge -- we know they're wrong about what happens when 1954 is over, and we also have to confront the fact that, 50 years later, we haven't come close to eradicating any of the evils they list. It's simultaneously sarcastic and joyful and wistful: a remarkable achievement. And these writers pull it off more than once -- "All in My Head" is as good a secondary-romantic-leads comic number as you're ever likely to see, and I'm still impressed by the deftly satirical yet totally straight-faced "Thanks for the Nifty Country!"

Yes, I know, it's just another '50s nostalgia musical, another musical based on a movie. I am apparently supposed to be shunning it. But I am ready to admit that I really like Cry-Baby, and furthermore I submit it as proof that even a big commercial musical, based on a movie, playing at the Marquis, doesn't have to be half-assed and pandering. It can be funny and still take itself seriously enough to be well-crafted, instead of taking the easy road and winking constantly at the audience. And as for the tired-'50s-nostalgia knock, well, you go listen to "Summer Lovin'," and then listen to "Girl, Can I Kiss You...?" from this show, and tell me we haven't made progress.

My excitement is fueled by the fact that I haven't often had the privileged experience of seeing a show early in previews, and then going back to see what changes the writers have made. It's refreshing just to know they bothered to keep working on it, when what I saw in early April was already of higher quality than I expected. But they did make changes, and they're smart changes -- a song replaced here, a song moved there, seamless enough that I had to compare my Playbills to make sure I wasn't imagining things, but dramatic enough that the show felt completely different, and most of my complaints were nulled, or at least addressed. It must have hurt to cut "Class Dismissed" (such a good title), but "A Whole Lot Worse" is a whole lot better at establishing the Drapes girls as marginally appealing characters and giving Allison some real motivation to change. Moving "Nobody Gets Me" streamlined the first act and went a long way toward making a stronger hero out of Cry-Baby. And my first Playbill lists a song called "Let's Get Some Air" that I don't even remember, so obviously dropping it was a smart move.

I'll stop short of saying I think the score ought to win the Tony, since I still haven't heard everything. But I will say that this year's choreography race is a very tough call. I left In the Heights last week saying, "Well, the Best Choreography Tony is a lock for this show." But after looking again at Rob Ashford's work on Cry-Baby, and the incredible ensemble that makes it look easy, I'm torn. In the Heights is next in line for Restricted View reviewing, but while we're on the topic I will also say that a certain middle-aged actress in that show somehow managed to score a Featured Actress in a Musical Tony nomination despite being so community-dinner-theatre bad I was actively embarrassed to watch her -- and yet Harriet Harris, the compelling center of the Cry-Baby cast, got nothing. It's a shanda.

I'm still wondering where Cry-Baby expects its audience to come from, since it's a little too rough for tweens or for the blue-hairs, and I wouldn't chaperone a group of high-schoolers to see it, either. But I do think musical snobs like us ought to be paying attention, if only because down the street from Cry-Baby we're about to get another big musical based on a movie, this one imported from Britain (and you know I love the British, but... not their musicals), and the marquee says "songs by Elton John." And down another street there's another revival of Grease whose leads were cast (and badly!) on a reality show. If we can't bring ourselves to give some attention to Cry-Baby, which is at least trying to have high standards, then I guess all of that is what we deserve. But if all of that depresses you like it depresses me, then you really ought to give Cry-Baby a chance.

1 comment:

Susan Rose, CSJP said...

I'm planning to see Cry Baby at the end of the month!