After watching Conejo Players’ production of “Baby,” which plays through November 21 at the company’s newly reopened theatre in Thousand Oaks, a better title for the musical might have been “Pregnant” because it deals with the process rather than the goal of the three couples in the story. First introduced on Broadway in 1983, Sybille Pearson’s charming, warm-hearted musical deals with the relationships between three newly-pregnant couples on a college campus, tracking their emotions, celebrations, and arguments, the couples representing a cross-section of middle-class white America during the 1980s.
When it arrived on Broadway, “Baby” had to contend with high-octane musicals like “Les Miserables,” “A Chorus Line,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” and revivals of “Mame” and “Zorba.” Person’s “Baby” proved to be too intimate a show to challenge its powerhouse competitors and ended up struggling, closing after 241 performances without turning a profit. “Baby” probably wouldn’t have lasted that long if not for a richly melodic score by composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. Eventually, it proved to have new life in community theater and has thrived ever since.
In her program notes, director Christine Adams compared the startling changes that affect couples when they are about to have a baby with the sudden disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, both involving people being forced to make changes in their lives. One can only take that comparison so far, as hopefully, there is an end in sight for the pandemic; but a baby is forever.
Jacqueline Patrice and Brendan Lynch play Lizzy Fields and Danny Hooper, college students who are living together when Lizzy receives her news. Both deliver delightful performances and have youthful voices that work very well with their songs. Lynch exhibits a sweet John Denver-like tenor in songs like “I Chose Right,” while Patrice’s best moment is leading the ensemble in the show’s funniest song, the Act II opener, “The Ladies Singing Their Song,” in which Lizzy reveals her embarrassment at being accosted by well-meaning passersby who constantly ask her about her pregnancy.
The second couple, Pam and Nick Sakarian (played by Melissa Strauss and Mark Lopez) are teachers in the school’s athletic department who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to have a baby for a few years. The Sakarians’ scenes are written as if they were in a situation comedy, especially when they follow a sex manual on the best ways to conceive. Nick’s character is supposed to represent the show’s comic relief and Lopez does a fair impression of Jackie Gleason in several over-the-top scenes (the script makes no less than three references to Gleason’s Ralph Kramden character). Strauss delivers a moving performance in her emotional roller coaster ride.
Dana Kolb and Lewis Blair play the third couple, Arlene and Alan McNalley, who are in their forties and are completely surprised when Arlene discovers her pregnancy. With three grown children in college and out of the house, they are just starting to experience the joys of empty nesting when they suddenly realize they will have to start over again with a new baby. One song the McNalleys sing (“And What If We Had Loved Like That?”) is a pale imitation of the affecting “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof” but Kolb and Blair pull it off with sincere, believable performances.
Ella Boring, Karen Macarah, Robert Anaya, and Patrick T. Rogers all do well juggling various ensemble roles supporting the leading characters.
Like the pregnancies, Shire and Maltby’s score has its ups and downs, especially in Act II, when the story begins to lose its steam. By this time, the audience has had enough labor pains and wants to see the baby. If you are a parent, the musical’s satisfying end will make you want to revisit your own family photo albums.
“Baby’ plays through November 21 at the Conejo Players Theatre. For tickets, visit conejoplayers.org or call (805) 495-3715.