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Kitsch Sinks

Cry-Baby’s cool detachment saps the essence of musical theater: emotion.

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Illustration by Jason Gnewikow  

What Frank Gehry does for undulating steel, what David Chang does for pork buns, Rob Ashford is doing for the pelvic thrust. The dances he’s choreographed for Cry-Baby reaffirm the timeless appeal of an old favorite, even as he leads fake humping in fresh directions. Working outward from the most obvious way of conveying the sexual frustrations of the punks and squares in John Waters’s story of fifties Baltimore, Ashford’s inventive, athletic dances confirm that he’s the Broadway choreographer with the best feel for transmuting melody into action: Over the last few years, nobody’s produced more dances I remember fondly than he has.

If I remember anything about Cry-Baby by this time next month, that’ll be to his credit, too. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s libretto draws a couple of laughs from good girl Allison (Elizabeth Stanley) falling for a bad boy who goes by Cry-Baby (James Snyder, not quite charismatic enough to inherit Johnny Depp’s forelock). Songwriters David Javerbaum (of The Daily Show) and Adam Schlesinger (of the band Fountains of Wayne) prove themselves nifty lyricists, particularly in a nut-job girl’s ballad, “Screw Loose.” (“Darlin’, it’s so / Hard to be sixteen and schizo.”) But aside from Ashford’s dances—and Chester Gregory’s customary demonstration that, even in a supporting role, he can prove himself the most talented man onstage—the show is already blending into the other musicals in its vein.

It is a very wide vein. Cry-Baby is the latest attempt to profit by what seems to be an insatiable appetite around Broadway for fifties kitsch. As such, it mainly points out the better qualities of its predecessors (except Grease). If the show’s fun seems muted next to its closest relative, the musical version of Hairspray, it’s largely because nobody can touch Marc Shaiman’s delightfully propulsive music. And if Cry-Baby feels a little tame, a little airbrushed, it’s partly because All Shook Up, that weirdly charming mash-up of Elvis songs and Shakespeare plots, dared to drop a bunch of Elvis-singing biker angels on the heads of its unsuspecting audience. You can imagine John Waters doing such a thing, but not his adapters.

Cry-Baby doesn’t follow recent shows like Spamalot and Xanadu into out-and-out mockery of the musical, but director Mark Brokaw and his writers don’t exactly play it straight, either. Like plenty of musicals lately, it doesn’t try very hard to work up genuine emotion—nor does its audience expect it to. Artists and playgoers have struck some weird deal whereby a lack of real feeling is acceptable as long as it’s played for a laugh. In other words, an art form based on emotions so potent they can only be expressed in song increasingly consists of a series of self-aware gestures. Broadway has turned snarky knowingness into camp for tourists.

It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, and it doesn’t hurt to have the brain of a quantum physicist, to keep up with the odd twists and turns of Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. Dinny, an Irish transplant to London, forces his sons to enact the same baroque story in their flat every day. But why? And for whom?

As the play—and play within the play—unfolds, Walsh uses farce, the silliest toolbox there is, to plumb some serious psychological depths. An unlucky stranger’s entry into this closed-off world helps him raise prickly questions about how storytelling can be beautiful, deranged, or both; how families can prepare you for the world or cripple your soul; and how potent self-deception can be. Director Mikel Murfi guides his gutsy cast (all from the original Irish production) and a palpably tense audience through a story that owes a little to Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh but is largely, admirably, original.

Cry-Baby
Songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger.
Marquis Theatre.

The Walworth Farce
By Enda Walsh.
St. Ann’s Warehouse. Through May 4.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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