The Hayes Theatre, Sydney
July 26, 2018
After the massive success of the musical adaptation of John Waters’ film Hairspray, taking on another of his films seemed like a pretty good idea on paper. But when the musical Cry-Baby – based on Waters’ 1990 film of the same name – opened on Broadway, the reviews were less encouraging, particularly a scathing piece from the New York Times that described the show as “mild-mannered”, “without flavour” and “terminally flat”. Fortunately, the Australian premiere of Cry-Baby, directed by Alexander Berlage for Hayes Theatre Co, is anything but, the cast delivering a wildly entertaining, high-octane performance in which over the top is just the beginning.
Christian Charisiou and Ashleigh Rubenach in Hayes Theatre Co’s Cry-Baby. Photo © Robert Catto
Cry-Baby is a Romeo and Juliet variant set in 1950s Baltimore, its warring houses are the wrong-side-of-the-tracks misfit Drapes (in multi-coloured costumes by Mason Browne at the Hayes) and the clean-cut, white-picket-fence squares (in neat, soft pastels). Our Romeo is Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker (Christian Charisiou), a tough, poor kid, whose opposite number is innocent society teenager Allison (Ashleigh Rubenach). Like the film, which stars a very young Johnny Depp in the title role, the musical mercilessly sends up the cookie-cutter teenage exploitation films of the era, but in this case trading Waters’ grittiness for Broadway garishness with movies/musicals like Grease in the firing line more than Elvis Presley films.
With a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (the pair behind the book for the musical Hairspray) and songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, Cry-Baby takes Waters’ flimsy plot as its spine, but the music that gives it flesh is original and the jokes are taken to even more ridiculous lengths. Pulling it off requires a heroic level of commitment and energy from the performers, which the cast at the Hayes bring in spades, pushing the material as far as it can go – and then even further.
The Squares in Hayes Theatre Co’s Cry-Baby. Photo © Robert Catto
Isabel Hudson’s set is a red and white candy-striped box – a simple space with trapdoors and windows – that hits the mood on the head with bright, festive economy and the cast gives relentless performances across the board. Charisiou’s Cry-Baby is more earnest and clean-cut than Johnny Depp’s, but he brings the right energy to the role and delivers the vocal goods. Rubenach’s Allison is neatly pitched as suburban innocent on the cusp of a new world – and she has the audience in stitches in the second act number Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Heartache and Woe, leaning on an absurdly undersized doll’s bed. The pair have an effective comic chemistry on stage as well, particularly in numbers like I’m Infected and Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue (which sparks off some recurring visual gags).
Laura Murphy is a delight as Cry-Baby’s infatuated stalker Lenora, her Screw Loose is a highlight, as is her duet with Cry-Baby’s rival Baldwin (who leads his gang of squares in Book of Mormon-esque fixed smiles), All in my Head. Beth Daly almost steals the show as Allison’s straight-laced grandmother Mrs Vernon-Williams, her comic timing impeccable.
Manon Gunderson-Briggs and the Cast of Hayes Theatre Co’s Cry-Baby. Photo © Robert Catto
Alfie Gledhill as Dupree, Manon Gunderson-Briggs as Hatchetface, Amy Hack as Wanda and Bronte Florian as Pepper, and the ensemble all deliver high-intensity performances that keep the show rocketing forward (including Blake Erickson, with facial muscles alone, from inside an iron lung).
Amy Hack, Ashleigh Rubenach and Bronte Florian in Hayes Theatre Co’s Cry-Baby. Photo © Robert Catto
Berlage and the cast overcome the deficiencies of the book (it is, if possible, even less subtle than the film version, and one of the film’s dramatic reveals is breezed through in the opening moments of dialogue) by keeping the pedal pressed to the metal all the way through. Not every joke is gold, but they’re hurled at the audience with such gusto that plenty stick and those that don’t are quickly forgotten, before the show really hits its stride in the second act. The music itself is entertaining if unremarkable – it’s an effective pastiche of 50s hits (though there are some comic touches that Musical Director Nicholas Griffin and the band wield deftly) – but the lyrics are clever and loads of fun. Cameron Mitchell’s choreography feeds and escalates the show’s momentum, contributing to the comic crescendo.
Even more than the film, though, Cry-Baby the musical is a joyous celebration of difference, lampooning the stifling sexual repression of the 1950s (and since) in a brightly coloured, over the top, mad-cap frenzy that will leave you crying with laughter.
Cry-Baby is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney, until August 19