PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cry-Baby — Hairspraying Pompadours and Ponytails

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cry-Baby — Hairspraying Pompadours and Ponytails
Still waters run deep. Then, there's John Waters, whose movies are never still or deep and, thus, highly susceptible to Broadway musicalization — like Cry-Baby, which arrived April 24 at the Marriott Marquis Theatre, joining his five-year-old bro, Hairspray, on The Great White Way.
John Waters, James Snyder, Harriet Harris, Elizabeth Stanley, Christopher J. Hanke, Lacey Kohl, Richard Poe, Mark Brokaw, Rob Ashford, David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, and Mark O'Donnell with Thomas Meehan.
John Waters, James Snyder, Harriet Harris, Elizabeth Stanley, Christopher J. Hanke, Lacey Kohl, Richard Poe, Mark Brokaw, Rob Ashford, David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, and Mark O'Donnell with Thomas Meehan. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The new entry is a one-decade step back in time — to the greasy '50s, a time of petticoats and polio panics, of rebels with and without causes. Essentially, it's Capulets and Montagues all over again, only in Baltimore of the '50s they went under the gang handles of The Squares and The Drapes. Our title character, who hasn't shed a tear since his parents were executed as Commies (hence, the nickname), has fallen into scruffy company that affects bad manners, black leather and duck tails. Naturally, he zones in on Allison, a white-bread society deb longing to be bad. If you caught Grease or All Shook Up, you understand the dynamic that Waters playfully had play here. The opposites attract and meld.

The movie writer-director with the pencil-thin mustache hovered expectantly over the delivery of his brand-new bouncing Broadway baby. At the theatre, before the show and at intermission, he was omnipresent, but at the after-party at Mansion he vanished into the inner sanctum of the V.I.P. room with his original (and now radically made-over) Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake, never to be seen again.

That was where most of the creators and celebs held up and spent the party. A few — Harriet Harris, director Mark Brokaw, co-scripter Tom Meehan, composer Adam Schlesinger and ensemble member Nick Blaemire — never got the memo that the press was waiting and missed their photo ops altogether. Blaemire, who plays a member of the evil barber-shop quartet in the show, was one of five performers marking their Broadway debuts. It's his first Broadway debut of the month: he'll make his bow as a Broadway songwriter when his Glory Days opens May 6 at Circle in the Square. Andrew Call, who was Cry-Baby's understudy and played Skippy Wagstaff, the guy in the iron lung, just went into a three-month leave of absence from the show, so he could play one of the leads in Glory Days.

Meanwhile, downstairs from the V.I.P. room, the entire first floor of Mansion (where The Spice Girls once reveled) had taken a deep dive in taste. For that one night only, the place was transformed into an exactly-as-you-might-remember-it facsimile of a Baltimore high-school cafeteria circa, of course, the 1950s. Meatloaf and potatoes and dryyyy peanut-butter sandwiches were the specialty of the house, all served by bossy cafeteria help who'd scold you if you helped yourself. (The ratty hairnet, I thought, was a nice touch.) Duff Goldman of the Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" created a cake for dessert.

The first-nighters made their way to the bar where, Square or Drape, you could pick your poison. You were a delinquent Drape if you had cold beer in a cup or went the absinthe route (the "Cry-Baby's Lucid Dream" or the "Give It to Me Straight, Judge!"). The highfalutin Squares had their choice of red or white wine, champagne and a vodka concoction called "RSVP Charm School Punch." At various corners of the room were go-go guys in prison stripes or painted ladies lounging sluttily. And, needless to add, a full blast of rock permeated the place.

The one sanctuary from the sound rape was a closed-off, breeze-free room on the second floor, above the bacchanal in progress, and this was where the stars were marched to meet the sweaty press.

James Snyder, the Cry-Baby in question, was one of those officially turning into a Broadway performer with the opening-night performance, and he arrived in a powerhouse fashion — by kicking his way through a breakaway sign — but the countdown to his entrance, he confessed, was nerve-frying: "I stand for about the first five minutes of the show behind this sign so I get to hear everything that's going on before I make my big entrance. Well, I couldn't hear a single note that was being played I was so nervous. My heart was just pounding. It was like this huge rush. And it was fantastic."

The title role in Waters' 1990 flick took Johnny Depp straight to screen stardom (for what it's worth, he is now playing Dillinger in Michael Mann's "Public Enemy"). Was he a daunting act for Snyder to follow? "It's definitely big shoes to fill," the actor freely admitted, "but it's a path I'm ready to follow. I've always looked up to him so just to be able to sorta take the same steps in such a way, is just great."

His favorite moment on stage is the "Jailyard Jubilee" number, which will induce apt memories of "Jailhouse Rock" and Elvis. "It's the one point in the show where we know the audience is going to be bowled over, so everyone's hungry to get to that point and show the energy and life this show has."

One thing he wasn't expecting was the traditional Gypsy robe ceremony that occurred right before the show, welcoming the newcomers to Broadway. "They said, 'Everyone who's making their Broadway debut' and I stepped out with four others." Another of the four was one of the handmaidens from Hell from his grungy entourage: Tory Ross as the mean-inside-and-out "Hatchet-Face."

Kerry Butler and Jackie Hoffman, Nikki Blonsky, Ricki Lake, Johnny Galecki, producer Elan McAllister and designer Chris March, Adam Duritz, Heidi Blickenstaff and Jerry Mitchell with Michele Lynch.
photos by Aubrey Reuben

Lacey Kohl, who plays wayward Wanda, arrived glamorously gowned in designer duds. You had to look for the little touch of trash — and it was there. "Because the dress is so long, I had to get massive platform shoes so I ended up going to a strip store, a porn store, to get them," she confessed sheepishly, adding redemptively: "My mom and dad came with me and helped me pick them out. Actually, they're party-festive and very comfortable." Clearly, she'd put some thought into her opening-night attire. "I've thought about this from when we knew we'd be coming in, When I got the show, I was, like, 'What am I going to wear on opening night?'"

Finally, an actress whose first question isn't "What's my motivation?" Kohl laughed. "Well, the motivation is there — always there. My character is fearless. She's this free spirit — naughty but loyal. She's fiercely loyal to her friends. I love that aspect of her because I have that in my own life."

As Allison, the Baltimore Helen of Troy who causes this tug of war between the Drapes and the Squares, Elizabeth Stanley admitted it's the right spot to be in. "She's so fun. Falling in love is one of the best things in life, and of course to get to play that out every night is really a blast." In particular, she enjoys playing with the dichotomy of a good girl wanting to be bad. "I think it equals human."

Her favorite moment in the show is when she gets to cry "Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)." "I just love that song. The whole cast is on stage so you have the energy of everybody behind you."

Cry-Baby is not the only show that is occupying Stanley these days. She has the female lead in the Broadway musicalization of Steve Martin's 1992 traveling-evangelist movie, "Leap of Faith," which director Taylor Hackford is readying for workshop. "It's a lovely cast — Raul Esparza, Lillias White, Terrence Mann — and it's a huge cast. There's 30-plus ensemble people. Eric Christian from our cast is also in it. They've been very generous in giving me the last few days off to focus on this opening, which is nice. The workshop is a couple of weeks away, and I'm glad for that. It's been very hectic. You rehearse the workshop all day. I have rehearsal at 10 AM tomorrow —10 until 6, usually with a lunch break. It makes for long days, but I should be so lucky to be working on two projects at once."

Just as Stanley is relieved to play a role sans oboe, tuba and sax (as she had to do in John Doyle's Company), Chester Gregory II is happy that the bungee-jumping he did in Tarzan isn't required for the role of Cry-Baby's sidekick, Dupree. In his performance is a deep bow to the past: "I like that my character pays homage to Little Richard, James Brown — the people who paved the way before me."

The show's secret ingredient, and all-stops-out scene-stealer, is Alli Mauzey, who plays Cry-Baby's whether-he-likes-it-or-not girlfriend, a deliriously delusional stalker who won't take no for an answer. She risks big with this over-the-top performance and wins. "I just keep it real for myself. Everything has meaning for me. I never try to go for a laugh. It's very real. My main objective is to, basically, get Cry-Baby. I will do whatever I have to do to get Cry-Baby. And you know what? It is a little taxing at times. I scream a lot in the show, but I couldn't do anything less or I wouldn't be honest."

The show's songwriters, lyricist David Javerbaum and composer Schlesinger, have thrown Mauzey a little showstopper called "Screw Loose" to second the motion, and the actress sings the hell out of it.

"Audiences always respond well to that song. David and Adam basically took Patsy Cline's 'Crazy' and said, 'What if there's a song about a girl saying how she's crazy for someone — but she is crazy.' That's how they started it. I can't tell you how much I love to sing it. Every night I find something new." In the second act, she has a compatible duet with Christopher J. Hanke, who pumps a different set of villainous vibes into the show as Allison's designated boyfriend, a mean-spirited Goody Two-Shoes who is actually introduced with a song called "Squeaky Clean." Their Act Two duet is titled "All in My Head," not at all inappropriately. "Is that a beautiful number?" Hanke said. "It's such a throwback to another era. It comes out of nowhere for the genre of music in this show. The song is a little crazy. That these characters would dream up all these fantasy brides and grooms and dance with them is absurd. I love connecting with Alli every night in this heightened song. It's challenging and thrilling."

The fantasy brides and grooms twirling around Mauzey and Hanke wear hand masks of the heroine and hero — a little homage to Astaire and Rogers' "Swing Time" from the show's hard-driving choreographer, Rob Ashford. His exuberant prison dance (and break), mimicking "Jailhouse Rock," is "the number I'm most proud of it." There are other cinematic allusions, "but mostly it was John Waters. I wanted to try to do a nod to him more than anything else — to keep it all in his aesthetic, sideways and crooked and interesting and sexy."

I spoke to Ashford about the sexual content of his choreography. "You don't like that?" he grinned back guiltily. "It's bad in a good way, or it's good in a bad way?" I'm thinking, I'm thinking . . .

Director Brokaw, plucked from the roiling revelers, credited his cast for coming through with a good show: "It was a really inventive group of actors, who brought a lot to the parts. We cast it, y'know, with people who really understood that world."

He also found Waters a lot of fun to work with. "John's very collaborative and kinda the godfather who watches over the characters. He would step in at crucial moments when we had readings and give us his opinions. He was very helpful."

It will be a while before he gets around to another Broadway musical. "I'm hoping to do Marty — that's the hope — some time in the next year and a half with John C. Reilly." He tried the piece out in Boston. Rupert Holmes did the book, Charles Strouse the music, Lee Adams the lyrics and Ashford the choreography. But Brokaw won't be hurting for jobs. He has 'em lined up like dominos for the remainder of the year: "I'm doing a new Eric Bogosian play at New York Stage and Film this summer called 1+1 — it's about coupling — then in the fall there's a new Kevin Elliott play with The New Group called Mouth to Mouth, and then a play with Cynthia Nixon called Distractions at the Roundabout in the winter."

Comedienne Harris, when I finally caught up with her, was cruising the food court for "delicacies" and looking awfully relieved to have finally landed back on Broadway.

"It's the first opening that I really ever felt, 'Oh, God! We've got to open this.' We had so many previews." She used the time well, perfecting her timing as the daffy granny with a full quiver of zingers. The performance echoes that pixilated old dear, Elizabeth Patterson. Harris drew a blank at the name. "But you always think I'm channeling somebody I never heard of," she protested. I do, too: She did Una Merkel to Christine Baranski's Mame and Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance.

"The movie of 'Cry-Baby' is great, but it's not particularly literate dialogue," charitably understated Mark O'Donnell, who did the musical book with Meehan. "It's just fun. For the stage, they can talk a little more specifically. You can give them zingers more easily on the stage."

The two adapters fine-tuned Waters before and took home Tonys for Hairspray. "We have a great time," admitted O'Donnell. "It's like playing in the sandbox. We lock ourselves up and make stuff up for three hours at a time."

What's on his plate right now? "I recently adapted Pyramus and Thisbe [the play done in A Midsummer Night's Dream] with a composer, Daniel Kellogg, as a 'Peter and the Wolf' kind of thing for the Kennedy Center. It just happened. Also, I write novels. I like to go back and forth, like crop rotations. In the theatre, collaboration is great, but it's challenging. With a novel, you have absolute power, but you're lonesome."

So what could bring O'Donnell and Meehan back to Broadway musical comedy? "Lust in the Dust," perhaps? "I think that's an opera!" he shot back.

Sampling the cafeteria cuisine: Scott Wittman, Rent director Michael Greif, Nikki Blonsky (the screen's second Tracy Turnblad), Jerry Stiller (who was in both "Hairspray" movies and "Cry-Baby) with, of course, Anne Meara, Kathleen Turner (Waters' "Serial Mom"), Charles Busch (preparing to storm the Hamptons this summer with Julie Halston "like Imogene Coca and Vivian Vance"), Linda Hart, director Moises Kaufman, "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner (who's about to helm "Playboy" —i.e. The Hugh Hefner Story — for one of the play's producers, Oscar-winning Brian Grazer), the also Oscar-winning Estelle Parsons, chef Rocco DiSpirito, Chris March of "Project Runway," director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell (who's readying a reading of Going Hollywood, a musical he once danced in with Karen Ziemba), Stephen Mailer (from the "Cry-Baby" film), Johnny Galecki, jazzman John Pizzarelli, Mark Ecko, Dana Tyler, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, Mary Heilman, Rene Fris of "Shear Genius," Cindy Sherman, Blondie's Deborah Harry, Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha and Talking Heads' David Byrne.

The cast of <i>Cry-Baby</i> takes its opening night bow.
The cast of Cry-Baby takes its opening night bow. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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