Songs from San Diego

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's been a rough season for Los Angeles musicals. Ray Charles: Live, Atlanta, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, Mask: The Musical, all of four of these shows had high profiles and higher expectations, but each got mixed to savage reviews. These musicals represent L.A.'s three biggest theaters yet none of them look like they're heading to Broadway anytime soon.

Strangely, one of the most acclaimed new Broadway musicals is about Los Angeles, Passing Strange, but it didn't debut here…and last month its creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald were quoted in the LA Weekly saying, "People ask 'Why don't you bring the play to Los Angeles?' We say 'How about if we don't.'" Ouch.

But just because LA is having a rough season, doesn't mean that Southern California is. San Diego, that other big, sunny city to the south, saw the debut of two big new musicals this season—and both earned favorable reviews here on the west coast and are playing on Broadway right now.

crybaby1.jpg One of them, Cry-Baby, was one of the four Tony nominees for Best New Musical. It received its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse last November. Cry-Baby is based on the 1990 John Waters' film that starred Johnny Depp and it's desperate to appear as a sort of sequel to the musical version of Waters' Hairspray. It shares the same writers (Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan), the same setting (Cold War Baltimore) and basically the same logline (scrappy misfits and pop music triumph over WASP-y establishment at local pageant). The one thing Cry-Baby doesn't share with Hairspray though, is its composer Marc Shaiman—and this is the show's only real flaw. The cast is likable, Mark Brokaw's direction is smooth, but Cry-Baby's songs, penned by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, aren't quite the same caliber as Hairspray.

crybaby2.jpg That was "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue," one of Cry-Baby's better numbers. It's funny and perfectly in tune with Waters' scenario—but too many of the songs feel like knock offs of numbers from other nostalgia shows, like Grease; whereas Shaiman's satirical but soulful numbers from Hairspray seemed to dance to their own beat: evoking the sounds of the sixties, but creating their own timeless musical world.

one_white_dress.jpg The other musical to move from San Diego to Broadway is also set in the 1950's but the score doesn't recreate the backbeat doo-wop of Cry-Baby or Hairspray; composer John Bucchino's music for A Catered Affair emulates the tasteful, chamber-opera sounds of Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza. Based on a real 1950's movie—instead of a 1980's cinematic send up of the Eisenhower era—A Catered Affair tells the story of a working class family in the Bronx. The Hurleys have recently lost their son in the Korean War, and can't decide whether to spend the bereavement check from the Military on the father's business or their daughter's wedding. It's kitchen sink melodrama and Bucchino's tinkling, sentimental music only adds to the old-fashionedness. Sitting though A Catered Affair feels like spending an evening at the house of old relatives you barely know, who haven't redecorated since Truman left office. The only thing missing is cat hair on the theater's seats.

immediate_family.jpg The brief moments when A Catered Affair comes to life are due to Faith Prince. In "Our Only Daughter," Prince shows how a musical number can bring us inside the thoughts and emotions of a complete stranger. The power of moments like these can make sitting through a bad musical—or even a season of bad musicals—seem almost worthwhile.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos from A Catered Affair, including banner image © Jim Cox
Photos from Cry-Baby: Joan Marcus