Full-throttle fun, Cry-Baby mischievously sends up the time-honoured squares-vs-drapes scenario in a fiercely upbeat musical version of the 1990 John Waters movie.
Set in Waters’ beloved Cold War-era Baltimore (predating Hairspray by a presidency or two), it’s a Romeo and Juliet scenario that brings together misunderstood rocker Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (he only ever cried the once mind you, the day his mom and pop were sent to the death house for treason) and a virginal glee club princess, Allison.
Much stands in the way of their true love and tongue-kissing, however.
For starters, each has something of a prior attachment: for Cry-Baby, it’s Leonora, the kind of girl who would (and has) carved his name into her arm. For Allison it’s Baldwin, the pencil-necked scion of a Baltimore millionaire and lead singer of the squarest band in town.
But the biggest hurdle to overcome is Mrs Vernon-Williams, Allison’s mom, who watches over her daughter’s honour and enforces the segregation of Baltimore’s working and upper classes.
That, plot-wise, is about all you need to know. Once the cast stomp on the gas pedal – and that’s just after you’ve sat down – all you can do is buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Working in an enclosed box set decked out in diagonal red stripes and tricked out with trap doors (an Isabel Hudson design), director Alexander Berlage has hot-rodded this rock ‘n’ roll pantomime to perfection. It’s noisy, it’s bright, it’s extremely sharp in execution, and it’s thoroughly entertaining.
The casting is terrific, right down the bill, led by Christian Charisiou as Cry-Baby and Ashleigh Rubenach, whose powerhouse vocals and comic chops impress throughout.
Beth Daly demonstrates similarly deft timing – and a peerless command of 1950s fashion poses – as Mrs Vernon-Williams.
Joel Granger is effective, investing Baldwin with the shrillness of Pee Wee Herman. Alfie Gledhill is winningly fiery as local MC Dupree.
Cry-Baby’s trio of female acolytes are made luridly hilarious by Amy Hack, Bronte Florian and Manon Gunderson-Briggs, the latter rendered unrecognisable in asymmetric makeup as the gargoyle-like Hatchetface.
Blake Erickson chips in a memorable gallery of cameos: a blustering judge, a naughty prison priest and a hapless polio victim encased in an iron lung.
Penned by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger (of the alt-rock band Fountains of Wayne and previously responsible for That Thing You Do, from the Tom Hanks movie of the same name), Cry-Baby’s songs are uncommonly funny and propulsive.
Wade’s rockabilly love song Baby Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby) is a triumph of faux artlessness; A Whole Lot Worse sounds straight from the Carl Perkins playbook; Screw Loose (sung by Laura Murphy’s hilariously deranged, show-stealing Lenora) is a masterful piece of schizoid bubblegum.
A tight and pleasingly loud offstage band under musical director Nicholas Griffin whips up Cry-Baby’s pastiches of rhythm ‘n’ blues and bobbysox bubblegum in rousing style. Were this production to be revived in a bigger venue (and I think it should), it would be great to see them at work, suited up in sequined drapes.
Cameron Mitchell’s choreography helps power the show through its set pieces, from the opening polio vaccination-drive picnic, to a raucous jamboree at Turkey Point, and most impressively, to the jailhouse where Cry-Baby sings up a prison riot.
John Waters’ subversiveness has been pretty much leached out in the adaptation but Cry-Baby is still a rockin’ night out, and this production confirms emerging director Berlage (who helmed the surreally funny There Will Be A Climax at the Old Fitzroy earlier this year) as an artistic force to be reckoned with.