From the trashy mind of John Waters comes this boldly subversive musical, based on his 1990 movie
To direct a musical – to create a vision for a new production – you have to be courageous. Bold ideas are the only ones that can cut through the overwhelming sensory presence of song and dance to create a clear onstage identity and shake the room with something stronger than the sum of its parts. That boldness is a massive risk – but with it, if the ideas are right, and the director’s creative team is on their wavelength, can come massive reward.
Cry-Baby, a twisted take on the teen rebel genre based on the 1990 film by camp master John Waters, is an embarrassment of riches. Directed by Alexander Berlage (a lighting designer and director; this is his first musical) and designed to pop-art and retro-fabulous perfection by Isabel Hudson, this cannily cast show is gleefully ironic. It’s a vision fully realised, an embrace of archness that delights in grotesquerie, and a reminder that, while musical theatre is often classified as painfully sincere, there’s plenty of room in the genre for irreverence.
The proudly unpolished cousin of Hairspray, another Waters film onstage, Cry-Baby queers the nostalgia of the past to skewer white upper-class nonsense. It’s the story of ‘square’ Alison (Ashleigh Rubenach) and Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker (Christian Charisiou), a rebellious ‘drape’ with an emcee best friend (Alfie Gledhill) and a gang of ferocious women (Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Amy Hack, and Bronte Florian) by his side. Famously, Cry-Baby hasn’t sobbed since his parents were killed by the state, and when you combine that with his authority issues, he’s perfect teen-heartthrob material. Alison is smitten with him from the moment they meet, and he with her. But in a world of stuffy social codes, family secrets, and puritanical values, can these two ever be happy together?
Charisiou and Rubenach both have big, thrilling voices, filling the theatre with their rock-tinged riffs (the show’s score is written by An Act of God and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend/SNL writers David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger – he wrote ‘That Thing You Do’!), and they’re leading an absurdly strong cast.
Gunderson-Briggs, Hack, and Florian are a funhouse mirror Shangri-Las, powerful and liberated. Gledhill is leading-man cool as Dupree, and Joel Granger leads a chorus of squares as a dead-on portrait of uptight male fragility. Laura Murphy, a gifted comic actor and glorious here, commits to an impressive show of unhinged desire as Lenora, Cry-Baby’s admirer. Beth Daly, as Alison’s grandmother, sends up the establishment with exaggerated poses and WASP-y delivery, and Blake Erickson, in a number of minor roles (including one in an iron lung) feels like he’s stepped directly out of the Waters oeuvre. There’s so much talent onstage that you know, even when the show takes some weird turns, you’re in highly capable hands.
The show itself isn’t a perfect one – there’s at least one number that’s just a one-note joke that hangs on for too long, and it’s not as confident in its own text as it needs to be. But Berlage – a perfect fit for the source material – has been quick to find workarounds for these problems, disguising them with clever staging and quick comedy bits.
Thanks to Berlage, the ringmaster of this madness, the production boasts a bold look and sound that’s irresistible. Nicholas Griffin, as musical director, leads a playful, robust band, balancing doo-wop with rock with ease. Hudson’s set design is witty and colourful (and complemented with bright pops and sight gags from Mason Browne’s costumes). For possibly the first time in theatre history, the simple reveal of a bed onstage is enough to send an audience into hysterics. Berlage also lit the show, and his innate understanding of camp, colour and space lifts the show to new heights. Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is slyly referential and smartly deployed.
Cry-Baby feels like the moment you stop holding in your feelings and set them free into the world: a bit messy, probably too loud after being kept in so long, but also liberating and giddy with its own newfound freedom. It’s a fuck you to convention, repression, and safety. It’s big voices, big visuals, big laughs. It’s a big mood, and it’s a smash.