It’s 1950s America, and you know the plot. The Baltimore high school students are divided into two groups: nice, innocent kids and shady, low-class greasers who play hooky or skulk outside the schoolhouse smoking cigarettes, the boys in black leather jackets, the girls in funky jeans. Despite adult disapproval, one of the sweet girls falls for the bad-boy leader, tosses off her inhibitions, and lots of sexy dancing ensues. The musical Cry-Baby, which just opened at the Bug Theatre in a regional premiere by Equinox Theatre Company, is a parody of the genre; it’s based on a 1990 film by John Waters, who’s known for outrageous, salacious, larger-than-life, boundary-smashing work, and also for the candy-colored, campy sweetness of the musical Hairspray.
Cry-Baby isn’t sweet — there isn’t a gentle or humanistic moment in it. But it isn’t savage, either. It steps over the line here and there, but lightly and without emphasis — when the plot makes fun of polio, which ravaged the country in the ’50s, for example, or tosses off cheerful references to a couple being executed in the electric chair — a clear allusion to the Rosenbergs and also a central plot point: Cry-Baby got his name because he cried for the first and only time in his life at the fate of his own parents, who were also executed. Still, once he learns who framed them, there’s instant forgiveness for the culprit, and the dancing goes on. When the bad boys are unfairly imprisoned, black Dupree (Preston Adams) alludes to racism, and a moment of realism threatens. But that problem fades away rapidly, too. In short, there’s nothing here to make us uncomfortable.
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But there’s much to entertain. The venue itself is eccentric and inviting; upon entering, we’re given paper fans with our tickets in case the auditorium gets too hot. The crowd is young, loose, enthusiastic and out for a good time, and gets it with crazed mockery on stage and also balls-out, wholehearted performances by a large crew of strange folks under the direction of Deb Flomberg. There’s Hatchetface (Beck Smith), who prides herself on her extreme ugliness; Pepper (Terra Leann Salazar), sixteen years old and pregnant by who knows whom — when she delivers, she drops several babies of varying races; and Lenora (Robin Zavala), the dopey outsider in love with Cry-Baby. This role would have been written for pathos in most musicals (think Anybodys in West Side Story), but here she’s just a nasty, lying, weirdly insane little creature, all spidery legs and arms. You kinda love her anyway, as you tend to do with almost everyone on stage, even the super-straight barbershop quartet led by Cry-Baby’s primary enemy, Baldwin (Alex Fox).
With the exception of one or two performers (ensemble member Michael Rossitto has elegant moves), you won’t see the slick, tight level of dancing you might expect in musical theater, and the acting is sometimes uneven. But the singing is great. The quartet members (Fox, Mike Martinkus, Joseph Lozano, Justin Milner) have the style and harmony down pat. Holly Joyce Dalton, who plays Allison, has a lovely voice, though she does tend to mug a bit, and Chris Arneson gives his all as Brando-wannabe Cry-Baby. The songs are an homage to ’50s rock — you’re constantly hearing phrases and bits of melody you sort of recognize from somewhere else. Most of them are performed as broad parody, which is appropriate. But every now and then there’s a melodic phrase or two, and you wish you could hear a singer just perform a song straight. Zavala, for instance, can deploy her fine voice in all kinds of interesting ways, and you can’t help but wonder how she’d sound just crooning Cole Porter, say, into a mic without any of the character’s shrieks, slides and discordant notes.
Still, Cry-Baby makes for a fun, amusing summer evening.
Cry-Baby, presented by Equinox Theatre Company through August 18, Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-477-5977, equinoxtheatredenver.com.