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Cry-Baby, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, songs by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, based on the John Waters movie

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive

Directed by Mark Brokaw; cast: Chester Gregory II, Christopher J. Hanke, Harriet Harris, Carly Jibson, Lacey Kohl, Alli Mauzey, Cristen Paige, Richard Poe, James Snyder, Elizabeth Stanley; scenic design, Scott Pask; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Peter Hyelnski

Playing through December 16; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010. For dates and times, click here.

If you haven't seen his movies, you may remember John Waters in a preshow announcement a few years ago. As a cigarette dips under his pencil-thin mustache, he says you shouldn't smoke, then sucks on the stick for a good ten seconds and snorts twin plumes from his nostrils. He stares straight at you and never bats an eye.

When a musicalized version of Waters's Hairspray became a Broadway hit, you knew commercial theater would trawl his other efforts for possibilities. The obvious candidate, Cry-Baby (1990), pays homage to '50s juvenile delinquent movies (and to outsiders everywhere). Some label it "Waters's West Side Story," but that's unfair to the great musical; others compare it to Grease, which has better music but lacks Waters's social comment. So does much of the world premiere musical, based on the movie, at the La Jolla Playhouse. Buffed and Lysol'd and audience-friendly, this is Cry-Baby watered down.

According to Waters, Baltimore in 1954 has two social groupings: Squares, an entitled upper class (one of whom proclaims, "What a wonderful time to be a conformist!"); and Drapes, a gang of white kids in black leather, the women toting switchblades and hard attitudes, the guys sporting Dixie Peach'd pompadours, DAs, and clenched teeth. The entitled call them trash, commie pinkos, and, most of all, "N.O.K.D." -- "not our kind, dear." Rebels without a cause, they are two years ahead of their time. In 1956, when Elvis sings "Hound Dog," they'll gain validation as hipsters overnight.

Tony meets Maria. Hip-shaking, bebopping Cry-Baby (so called because he can't) is "the most popular loser in school." Terminally unhappy ("If happiness was brains, I'd be a borderline retard"), Cry-Baby falls for Allison. She's a "good girl," she says, "but I don't wanna be!" The forces of repression endeavor to keep the twain apart.

A musical in-joke: the male squares, led by clean-scrubbed Baldwin (an evil incarnate Christopher J. Hanke), dress and croon like the Four Plaids of Forever Plaid. They claim to be "very straight and very narrow," while talking and acting like Hitler Youth, one vowing to "put the fist in pacifist."

Most of the musical, the first act in particular, lacks nuance and feels generic. The songs, rock and roll at the cusp of puberty, are lively and familiar, one even more so -- "Do That Again" 's a dead steal from Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire" (the lyrics changed to keep lawyers at bay). Many scenes resemble Saturday Night Live bits: the set-up's fun, but often the joke drags on too long.

Though thinner than Water's moustache, Cry-Baby is always entertaining. Director Mark Brokaw (and Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's hilarious one-liners) keeps things moving even when the book doesn't. Brokaw and choreographer Rob Ashford combine for a second-act tour de force. Cry-Baby and his cohorts are in prison, stamping out license plates and becoming "A Little Upset." The song builds, as does their urge to escape. They really slam those plates. The choreography kicks in, including some prisoners tap-dancing with plates on their feet. They go over the wall. They sprint across the stage again and again. Scott Pask's sets roll on and off, like an instant replay of all previous locales, in reverse. In effect, "A Little Upset" becomes an extended, unforgettable chase scene performed in a frenzy.

Ashford also scores with "All in My Head," a double-star-crossed number, in which Cry-Baby and Allison, as Ken and Barbie mannequins dressed for a wedding, step down from a show window and dance with Baldwin (gaga for Allison) and love-ravaged Lenora (ape for Cry-Baby) -- the message: even rejects can dream.

But there's the rub. Most films achieve cult status, in part at least, because they have an unspoken code that inverts standard notions of good and evil (when Brad and Janet get lost in the rain, in Rocky Horror, they go on a collision course with sexual awakening). The code also inverts audiences: people who feel marginalized, in the world at large, become insiders in the theater.

Time and again, Cry-Baby breaks the code. The Squares have hearts of dross, the Drapes of burnished gold. Baldwin and the other social in-crowders openly acknowledge their villainy, to the point of almost saying, "Hi, I'm a Nazi." They speak their subtexts, which not only drains dramatic irony from the piece, it does the audience's thinking for it. At the same time, the heroes are hyper-heroic. James Snyder, an indefatigable young talent, plays Cry-Baby closer to Donny Osmond than to Johnny Depp's spit-curled movie version. And Cry-Baby's mates are only allegedly dangerous. Put them in Carousel and they'd have a real nice clambake.

Since the goods and evils get inverted so melodramatically, the musical has only two appealing characters. The grandmother (a savvy, funny Harriet Harris) "Did Something Wrong Once" and stops the show with a Dorian Gray-like confession. The most interesting character, by far, is Lenora, Cry-Baby's adoring, to the point of literal adhesion, groupie. Played by a splendid Alli Mauzey, Lenora hears voices (and talks back) and has, she confesses in the show's best song, "A Screw Loose." Lenora's the only genuine outsider in the musical. After all, she's marginalized by both the Squares and the Drapes.

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