If you lower your defenses, Theatre Kraken’s production of Cry-Baby is capable of providing you with an uproariously enjoyable time at the Gladstone Theatre.

This is less due to the material—an uneven stage musical derived from John Waters’s 1950’s movie starring Johnny Depp—than to the spirited ensemble work of a 19-member cast and the sturdy contribution of a six-piece band under Chris Lucas.

Only the most dedicated sourpuss would be able to resist the trashy pleasures afforded by this cheeky reworking of one of the most durable themes in dramatic literature—the one where the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks falls for the good girl from a distinctly tony neighborhood. In this instance, we have 1950s Baltimore and the breakdown in class taboos that occurs when swaggering, misunderstood delinquent Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker encounters quintessential good girl Allison Vernon-Williams. Don’t, however, expect this story to unfold within a normal dramatic framework.

After all, Cry-Baby springs from the unfettered satirical imagination of John Waters, a filmmaker whose skewed vision can embrace both a devotion to Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach and a relish for making bad taste a key component of his own artistic endeavors.

To be sure, Cry-Baby offers Waters in a more mellow mood than an earlier endeavor, Pink Flamingos, in which Divine lapped up actual dog feces. Even so, in the case of Cry-Baby, one can’t imagine anyone else opening proceedings with a scene that sends up a charitable event dealing with the horrors of infantile paralysis. There’s a certain shameless gusto in the way this opening number—The Anti-Polio Picnic by name—zips into action before our eyes, complete with a kid in an iron lung becoming part of the merry musical cavorting. But it also serves notice of a high bar of intent when it comes to the quality staging of the musical numbers—a commitment reinforced minutes later with another bit of naughty ensemble joy bearing the title of Watch Your Ass. And it’s typical of Waters, brought up a Roman Catholic, to conjure up a later moment concerning the Virgin Mary’s appearance as a vision in a bowl of oatmeal porridge.

Still, in a very real sense, this current Theatre Kraken offering constitutes a triumph over the inferior material. When this stage version of Cry-Baby arrived on Broadway in 2007, it represented an attempt to match the 2003 stage success of Hairspray, another Waters vehicle. This was not to be, and even now, in a slimmer reworked treatment, it remains a somewhat disheveled specimen. The book, by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, keeps stumbling into brittle campiness and fails to provide the kind of emotional resonance that gave Hairspray vital ballast in connection with its central character, Tracy. As for the music of David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, it is at best variable and redeemed constantly here by the vigor of the performances.

A key factor in the show’s success at the Gladstone is the robust direction of Don Fex, a canny craftsman with a knack for conjuring up the kind of momentum that helps us disregard the material’s narrative and psychological flimsiness. Fex is also attentive to the challenge of ensuring quick scene changes in a potentially daunting venue like this one—and he delivers. And he has also masterminded a curtain call which further builds on the goodwill and affection that this show has secured from audience members in the course of the evening.

But the ultimate strength of the production lies in the quality of the musical numbers. Choreographer Brenda Solman brings imagination and vigor to her assignment and accommodates superbly to the limitations of the Gladstone playing area. Again a case of production values rising above the show itself.

As for the individual performances—well, Nicholas Dave Amott finds both swagger and vulnerability in the character of Cry-Baby and brings a robust confidence to his songs. As Allison, the good girl who’s tired of being a square, Emma Woodside’s innate charm and musicality are plus factors. So is the evidence of a subtle awareness of the fact that she’s portraying a cliche fantasy who needs to be sent up a little bit.

A tip of the hat as well to Samantha De Benedet for the mischievous underlay to her performance as an erotically ravenous character,  named Leonora Frigid, and to Christine Drew whose portrayal of Allison’s protective grandmother leads to one of the evening’s most effective numbers—a musical lament called I Did Something Wrong Once. There’s a disarming trio of bad girls—Abbey Flockton romping through the role of the pregnant Mona Pepper, Steph Goodwin adroitly delivering a scowl of a performance as Mona “Hatchet-Face” Mainorowsky, and Alianne Rozon floating like a dream, albeit a slightly off-centre one, in a visually striking portrayal of Wanda Woodward, a character desperately afraid of seeming normal. And belonging in his own show-stopping category is Axandre Lemours, terrific as Cry-Baby’s loyal buddy, Dupree.

But there’s something else happening in this production—something really interesting. Fex and his colleagues are also intent on celebrating the levels of parody lurking within the somewhat problematic material. Those irreverent moments involving gas masks and bomb shelters are the most obvious—a barbed valentine to the Eisenhower era and Cold War paranoia. And who else but John Waters would make his title character the orphaned offspring of executed traitors?

One immediate pleasure is the overture. It indulges in its own bit of self-mockery as music director Chris Lucas and his band of merry men end up struggling to bring the music to a decisive and dramatic climax.

Indeed there’s the recurring sense here that Cry-Baby is irreverent enough to be sending up the conventions of the traditional Broadway musical but also, more specifically, the pretensions of its troublesome sub-genre, the rock musical. Is Grease being mischievously targeted here? Who knows?Cry-Baby continues at the Gladstone to May 19.

 

This article originally appeared in Capital Critics’ Circle on May 15, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.