Review: ‘Cry-Baby The Musical’ at Drama Learning Center

Baltimore’s John Waters takes another swipe at Eisenhower-era conformity in Cry-Baby: The Musical, making its area premiere now at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia. The show had a short Broadway run in 2008, so local theater fans can thank DLC’s Teaching Young Artists troupe for this rare chance to see what New Yorkers might have missed.

Lila Cooper (Allison) and Nick Brogan (Wade). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

John Waters actually had little to do with the show, which was developed independently at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. Taking a cue from Hairspray, the book by Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell (also credited for Hairspray) retrofitted the plot of Waters’ 1990 film Cry-Baby with a few catchy new songs, this time by Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum.
The musical shares some key elements with Hairspray, including bows to its vintage Baltimore locale and a TV-centric view of American values. Missing are the resonant racial tensions and endearing views of family support that buoyed up the puppy-love romance of that earlier Tony Award winner.

Still, Cry-Baby makes a close-to-perfect fit for the emerging talents of the Teaching Young Artists company. In recent seasons the Howard County troupe has come to specialize in just this sort of teen underdog musical, including First Date, High School Musical and, most memorably, Carrie the Musical.

This time around the plot centers on a familiar, Grease-like romance between a “good girl who doesn’t want to be” and a misunderstood teen outcast with acres of attitude for lease.

Allison, the good girl, comes from an uptight home in a community of squares that wastes its resources on such things as a nuclear bomb shelter “for members only” and “designer gas masks.” She spots delinquent Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker at an “anti-polio picnic” — and the hormone regatta is off again.
The local setting borrowed from the Waters film is also the new show’s most notable element. There are frequent mentions of Baltimore detention facilities, institutions, and services. All of it climaxes (as did the movie) at the now-defunct Ellicott City amusement park, the Enchanted Forest.
The fact that what remains of the Enchanted Forest now resides at Clark’s Elioak Farm less than two miles down the road adds further novelty and interest to this staging. Projected images of that landmark and other key local settings provided by Bruce F. Press Photography make a most valuable contribution.

The staging in general by Director Stephanie Lynn Williams is very strong, beginning with those projected backdrops and her concept for an imposed television motif. The show begins and ends with a giant test pattern and animated credits, as well as humorous reminders to disable cell phones and the like. Kudos to Projection Designer Riki Kim.

Casting choices are also solid across the board. Veteran TYA performer Lila Cooper brings a good deal of fresh charm to the lead role of Allison. Cooper’s sweet and pure singing voice on such numbers as “I’m Infected” and “Nobody Gets Me” deserve a boost in amplification to be fully appreciated.

Nick Brogan and Mark Quackenbush perform the role of bad-boy greaser Wade on alternating evenings. We enjoyed Nick Brogan’s performance on the reviewed night as he walked a thin line between adolescent self-doubts and larger-than-life arrogance. Once again, though, a little more projection on such numbers as “Baby Baby Baby Baby” and “Do That Again” would shove the rock’n’roll spirit of rebellion more into our face, where it belongs.

Abrien Nelson as Dupree nails his spotlit R&B solos “Jukebox Jamboree” and “Jailyard Jubilee” with style and skill. Alicia Philadelphia also gets our sympathy and wins our respect as the misfit Mona, thanks in part to her pleasantly booming voice.

Among the outstanding supporting players, Alyssa Tschirgi as Allison’s grandmother and mascot of the “squares” drives home the character’s soul-baring solo “I Did Something Wrong Once.” She delivers both the humor and the pathos of the number while never once straying off pitch.

Lauren Alberg pulls off something similar in her remarkable solo “Screw Loose.” As Lenora, she gets huge laughs showing us how a reclusive and shy young woman might just get carried away by her moment in the spotlight and break out in what amounts to an uninhibited psychological pole dance.

Others distinguishing themselves here are troupe veteran Tommy Eyes as Baldwin, the squares’ clown prince with a tin ear for comedy; and Andrew Lyon in a series of humorous stereotyped characters that benefit from his deadpan timing.

The whole ensemble sounds great in the choral accompaniment on the big numbers like “A Whole Lot Worse,” “Girl Can I Kiss You?” and the tongue-in-cheek “Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again.”

Production values are on a par with the theater’s past high standards, thanks to Sound Designer Dustin Merrill and Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin. The live, three-piece orchestra led by Tiffany Underwood Holmes keeps the musical rocking along through its chart-topping chords.

If you’re thirsty for some Watered-down camp at a budget-friendly price, grab yourself some tickets while they last. Don’t risk being called a “crybaby” after the last ship has sailed.

Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Abrien Nelson as Dupree leads the ensemble through “Jukebox Jamboree.” Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Cry-Baby: The Musical plays through June 24, 2017, featuring the Teaching Young Artists (TYA) troupe performing at the Drama Learning Center — 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles under the Hollywood sign, John Harding is an award-winning arts writer and editor. From 1982 on, he covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and served as arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group until 2012. A past chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, he co-hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program. Also known for his novels as John W. Harding, his newest book is “The Designated Virgin: A Novel of the Movies,” published by Pulp Hero Press. It and an earlier novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games,'” grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore.


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