Those who sneered at A Catered Affair, the Broadway musical that opened just prior to last week’s new arrival, Cry-Baby, must be experiencing the discomfort of an object lesson: Though half-achieved and too insistently somber, A Catered Affair at least knows where its main strength lies, and has the powerhouse performances to prove it. Going from that view of the 1950s to the one laid out so perfunctorily in Cry-Baby is like hurrying home from a new Sondheim work to catch reruns of American Bandstand. Yes, the dancing’s lively, and those half-familiar songs sometimes carry an unexpectedly witty sting in their lyrics, but that’s the pity of Cry-Baby: It boasts any number of small individual virtues that you might not notice because its overriding stench of been-there-done-that is so strong. The guidebooks can talk up the charming architectural details of a recycling plant all they want, but the fumes and the perpetual chug of the machinery will still tend to keep visitors away.
I’m innocent of John Waters’s original movie, so I can’t say how far the adaptors, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, have strayed from its script. What we get onstage looks heavily influenced by Grease as well as by the librettists’ (and Waters’s) predecessor work, Hairspray, seasoned with a pinch of The Book of Daniel and several heaping tablespoons of Forever Plaid. Bad boy tempts, and gets, good girl, and then turns out to be not so bad after all, while the good folks who had her in their clutches turn out to be both geeks and crooks. Teenage pregnancy and mental disturbance provide mildly grotty comic relief in the customary Waters vein, and, as in Hairspray, the climax comes from a juvie prison break that makes the one in Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers (1930) seem fairly naturalistic by comparison. It’s all harmless fun, most of it proficiently carried out, but the proficiency melts into the blandness, as if the show’s shapers were nervous about giving it too much distinction. Only a few performers in secondary roles manage to stand out: Chester Gregory II as the hero’s falsetto-singing sidekick, Lacey Kohl as a bad girl with lewd dancing flair, Christopher Hanke as a good boy as excruciatingly bland as solidified Cream of Wheat, and Harriet Harris, who’s skilled at giving gag lines a wry twist, but here twists them so hard that she occasionally wrings their necks.
In a sense, Cry-Baby suffers from the same fault as A Catered Affair: The creators have been slightly indecisive in carrying out their stylistic choices. O’Donnell and Meehan are both gifted comic writers, and the script contains many sly lines in which you can spot each man’s quirky style. David Javerbaum’s lyrics have their shaky spots, but also a fairly large number of bright spots. Neither Mark Brokaw’s production nor Adam Schlesinger’s music quite seems to get the tone that all three writers are clearly aiming at—a sort of deadpan comic-book Gilbert & Sullivan that would probably have been caught quicker by the team that did Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island. Certainly Ben Katchor’s drawings would have given Cry-Baby a far more suitable environment than Scott Pask’s set, which seems to proceed on the assumption that Baltimore looks like nothing, and lets Catherine Zuber’s gaudy-silly costumes supply most of the visual flair. Unsurprisingly, Schlesinger’s best tune, “Little Bit Upset,” provokes the best of Rob Ashford’s athletic dance numbers, which includes a canny touch—the rioting convicts stomping on the metal license plates they’ve turned out—that suggests a backhanded tribute to Susan Stroman’s fondness for dances with gadgets. Cry-Baby‘s full of such droll tweaks; if only the substance they were tweaking had more life left in it.
You might construe Honor, the latest venture by Prospect Theatre’s writer-director team of Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, as Off-Off-Broadway’s perfectly timed rebuke to slicked-down commercial ventures like Cry-Baby. A flawed, wildly uneven piece in an even more uneven production, it displays giant ambitions, some of which it attains, along with, on its bumpy road, more and better fun than you can glean from Cry-Baby. The source is Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which Reichel and Mills have transposed to a mythic Japan familiar from samurai movies: A daimyo overthrown by his power-hungry brother finds Zen serenity in the woods; the brothers’ daughters trade the usurper’s court for a peasant hut, where a young samurai in exile woos the one disguised as a boy, and the court clown gets a song (one of the show’s best) in which he describes himself as a neutral pebble in a game of Go.
The imagination at work here isn’t cheap, though it runs dry from time to time. The skill involved has its limitations too, and they often blend unhappily with the usual harsh limits of Off-Off casting, budgets, and rehearsal time—the resources needed to realize something this big are way beyond Prospect’s boundries. But that makes the daring involved all the more commendable: In bygone days, a Broadway producer might have tried this; now the risk is too costly. One might like to see more comfortably financed nonprofits partnering with Prospect on a piece of this scale.
The writers make one big miscalculation, substituting a string of battle scenes for Shakespeare’s sneakily funny deus-ex-machina ending. This prolongs the tale just when it’s reached its natural end, and misses, ironically, the point that Shakespeare has most strongly in common with Japanese theater tradition: Nothing could fit more snugly in Buddhist culture than Duke Frederick’s religious conversion. It’s particularly maddening because several of the work’s musical high points—big, sweepingly lovely ensemble numbers—catch this shared spiritual element perfectly, while others snag Shakespeare’s low-comedy sense in a way that’s pure kyogen. The cast’s as erratic in quality as Reichel’s directorial ideas, but both of the young female leads, Diane Veronica Phelan and Ali Ewoldt (Hana and Kiku, a/k/a Rosalind and Celia), are delightful, while Jaygee Macapugay and Romney Piamonte make excellent drollery in roles that merge Phebe and Silvius with Audrey and William. While falling short of its lofty goals, Honor reaches a surprisingly large number of gratifyingly high peaks.
Paris (1928) was Cole Porter’s first Broadway hit—except that so many of his songs were cut before the opening and replaced by interpolations that you could hardly call the result his. Enterprisingly, Musicals Tonight has excavated the pre-opening script and restored all the songs Porter wrote for it. Irritatingly, they’ve also felt the need to fiddle with the script and augment the score with numbers Porter wrote for other shows around the same time. Too much of a good thing, say I. But the songs are all wonderful to hear, and Jennifer Evans sings with appealing vivacity as the heroine Vivienne—this is the one about the French actress who thinks she wants to marry a stuffy Boston Brahmin. You know.