Shakespeare meets leather jackets meets 1950s rockabilly in Essex High School’s (EHS) fall production of Cry-Baby. Based on the cult classic John Waters film of the same name, the risque musical follows a central teen love story set in post-war Baltimore to the tune of tongue-in-cheek rock and roll numbers.

EHS Drama Director Aly Perry described the show as having a “no holds barred attitude,” with an undercurrent that “challenges notions of class, race, and gender.”

It’s 1954; rock and roll has burst onto the scene and lovebirds, Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker and Alison Vernon-Williams, are from opposite sides of the tracks. Cue Romeo and Juliet style chaos, with the addition of teen pregnancy, schizophrenia, and polio vaccines.

The EHS cast is decked out in ruby red lipstick, winged eyeliner, leather jackets, polka dots, plaid—the works. They even have an in-house student rock band providing musical accompaniment.

“EHS has a reputation for doing shows that expand the notion of what high school theater can be,” Perry said. Cry-Baby is definitely an example of this.

When the show made its debut in 2007, audiences and critics were split between love and hate. Many criticized the show’s writing as crass—an empty story built upon shock-value; others loved its satirical bent and praised the show’s comedic prowess. Now, the show has somewhat become a cult-classic. For Perry, Cry-Baby is about breaking people out of their comfort zones and addressing social issues.

“It’s a knife in the belly for the current political moment,” Perry said. “It hits you hard in the beginning. It comes in waves, but if you decide to stay, you’re in for a special treat.” While she wonders if shocked audiences could miss what she sees as the true message, Perry hopes that the cast’s professionalism and dedication to the show will win audiences over.

The show’s ode to 1950s rockabilly creates feelings of nostalgia, but with a twist, said Perry.

“It makes you remember what it was like to be a teen, with all of those raw emotions,” she said. The show reminds viewers of a time, “when the boxes we thought we needed to fit in were so pronounced”—then tests those boundaries.

Ryan Poulin who plays bad boy Cry-Baby described the show as an, “examination of interpersonal relations and how they intersect with class, race and sex.

“How do we deal with these emotions?” Poulin asked himself both as an actor and a young adult in studying the role. “Digging through those emotions helped me process my own. The beauty of it is that these are real people.”

Emma Blatt plays Cry-Baby’s love interest, the “square” Allison Vernon-Williams. For Blatt, the musical “challenges your thoughts” on social issues and notions of good and bad people. “Everyone’s just trying to fit in,” said Blatt.

Blatt also noticed, “how strikingly the same some of the issues are and how it ties back to issues we deal with today,” she said.

Much more than a Grease knock-off, EHS’s production of Cry-Baby asks audiences to step outside of their comfort zones and challenge societal norms alongside a rebellious, hormone-charged group of kids. While students croon about kissing with tongue and venereal diseases, the show ultimately points a satirical finger back at the audience.

The EHS production of Cry-Baby will run from Nov. 21-24. Shows on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday begin at 7 p.m., and on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $5 for students, $10 for general admission, and can be purchased at the door or in advance at EHSCryBaby.brownpapertickets.com.

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