Cal State Fullerton Theatre & Dance is putting on quite a show this month, a rarer-than-rare big-stage production of Cry-Baby, aka The other John Waters Musical, and what a delightfully nostalgic, deliciously twisted, not-quite-for-all-ages alternative to Hairspray it turns out to be, especially as performed by CSUF’s Musical Theater BFA program triple-threats.

If you’re a Broadway buff, you’ve likely seen the first John Waters musical at least once, but unless you drove down to La Jolla for Cry-Baby’s 2007 pre-Broadway run or caught it in New York from March to June of 2008, you’ve probably not see the Hairspray follow-up even once.

Perhaps Broadway audiences weren’t ready for a musical that didn’t sugar-coat its John Waters cinematic source, or perhaps they were just sourpusses, but Cry-Baby didn’t get either the Broadway or post-Broadway success it deserved, just one reason not to miss what may be your only chance in the foreseeable future to catch this underappreciated gem.

Like Hairspray (and pretty much everything John Waters has ever written and directed), Cry-Baby takes place in Waters’ hometown of Baltimore, but this time about eight years before Tracy Turnblad brought integrated dancing to local afterschool TV.

It’s the height of the Cold War, polio shots are about to save countless lives, Eisenhower morality rules, and the Baltimore locals are staging their first-ever annual Anti-Polio Picnic-And-Vaccination Carnival, presided over by town grande dame Mrs. Vernon Williams (Sarah Ellsworth), whose blonde teen granddaughter Allison (Kelly Rosales) could give Sandra Dee a run for her “won’t go to bed till I’m legally wed” money, though if Allison’s equally squeaky-clean boyfriend Baldwin (Matthew Ollson) has anything to say about it, wedding bells will chime the very second the longtime steadies celebrate their high school graduation next year.

Enter Wade Cry-Baby Walker (Jeff Garrido), the baddest bad boy ever to set foot in polite Baltimore society, along with his juvenile delinquent backup trio— blonde bombshell Wanda (Beth Roy), about-to-pop Pepper (Kiana King), and so-ugly-she’s-called-Hatchet-Face Mona (Olivia Pence), and neither Allison’s life nor the lives of those around her will ever be the same again.

Unlike Hairspray The Musical, Cry-Baby revels in Walters camp—over-the-top characters, double-entendre-filled dialog, and wink-wink tributes to ’50 teen exploitation flicks like Hot Rod Girl, High School Hellcats, and Juvenile Jungle—all of this lovingly preserved by book writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (iron-lung-confined polio poster-boy Skippy cheerfully chirps “I sure wish I could have gotten that shot!”)

and by David Javerbaum, lyricist to Adam Schlesinger’s catchy melodies, in gems like “I’m infected with these feelings you’ve injected” and “Promise me, Venus, I’ll get to show here my squeaky … cleanness” and “It’s moist and it’s pink, it’s a muscle I think,” the latter in “Girl Can I Kiss You With Tongue?”

Under Sarah Ripper’s more than capable direction, a student cast born nearly half-a-century after Cry-Baby showed up at the picnic get ‘50s America pitch-perfectly right, and with choreographer William F. Lett giving audiences one joyously high-energy dance number after another (the license-plate tap extravaganza that is “Jailyard Jubilee” is a showstopper if there ever was one), Cry-Baby delivers the entertainment goods … and then some.

Garrido’s jet-black-haired good looks make Cry-Baby’s arrival in waspy, almost-entirely-blond Baltimore society all that more earthshaking, and and the CSUF junior sings and dances as good as he looks, igniting plenty of sparks with Rosales’s pretty, perky, ready-to-play-Sandy-in-Grease Allison.

A trio of fabulous featured performances stand out in particular—Ellsworth giving the imposing Mrs. Vernon Williams depth, maturity, and vocals beyond her years, big-voiced Kayla Contreras going all the way to bonkers as screw-loose, Cry-Baby-obsessed Lenora, and a sensational Christopher Mosely showing Millennials a thing or two about what made Little Richard a ‘50s superstar as Dupree.

Ollson gives Baldwin a just-right mix of squeaky-cleanness and smarm, joining fellow “Whiffles” Evan Borboa, Colby Hamann, and Joe Stein in razor-sharp barber-shop harmonies along the way, and King, Pence, and Roy have great over-the-top fun (and so do we watching them) acing bad girls Pepper, Hatchet-Face, and Wanda.

Ensemble members Sarah Bloom, Brianna Clark, Aaron Cruz (Judge Stone), Yadira del Rincon, Megan Hill, Timothy H. Lee, Megan McCarthy, Carly McLaurin, Nathan Shube, Robyn Stephenson, Anthony Michael Vacio, Jacob Wayne (Father Joseph O’Brien), and Samantha Wojtaszek offer topnotch support throughout, whether peforming Lett’s dances or vocalizing under musical director-conductor Mitchell Hanlon’s expert baton*.

Scenic designer Kristin Campbell, costume designer Jane Baek, and makeup-and-hair designer Nicolette Woodard recreate the 1950s quite niftily indeed with Stacy McKenney’s lighting adding to the production’s professional air, and sound designer Meghan Patrick provides a skillful mix of amped vocals and instrumentals.

Ruby Patchell is stage manager and Christina Bustos, Joshua Hoover, and Sarah King are assistant stage managers. Olivia Lawrence is assistant director and Jennifer Maggi is assistant choreographer. Joe Holbrook is technical director and Andrés Gonzalez and Citlali Alcaraz are assistant technical directors.

I’ve been waiting for a second chance to see Cry-Baby since falling hard at the La Jolla Playhouse back in 2007, and thanks to Cal State Fullerton that wish has come true. Social conservatives like Mrs. Vernon Williams may squirm, but anyone else will be having themselves a “Jukebox Jamboree” of a good time with Cry-Baby in town.

*The Band: Jeff Askew, Jimmy Beall, Garret Hazen, Jason Rosenquist, and Damon Zick

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Little Theatre, California State University Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
November 5, 2017
Photos: Jordan Kubat


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