REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
The Rubicon Theatre Company’s Broadway Musical Concert Series, now in its second season, presented the rarely seen Rodgers and Hart classic Babes in Arms last weekend, a show that audiences seldom see these days, but whose songs are familiar to anyone who cherishes the Great American Songbook. Directed by Stephanie Coltrin, the show was staged for three performances last weekend at the Ventura theater.
When it first appeared on Broadway in 1937, Babes in Arms was just another in a string of Rodgers & Hart hits. The duo was producing two shows a year, with each playing for 250-300 performances, an insignificant number when compared to today’s musical blockbusters, but quite respectable for its time. As soon as one finished its run, the next one started, leaving the previous one behind to be quickly forgotten. Babes in Arms marked a change in how Broadway shows were produced. In those pre-Oklahoma! days, musicals were vehicles for existing stars. It was the stars that drew the audiences, not the show or the story. Rodgers and Hart were inspired to write this show after witnessing a group of New York children playing on a city playground, making up games from their own imaginations. Instead of writing a show around a famous personality, R&H wrote the show first and then cast it with young unknown performers. Out of this cast emerged such future stars as Alfred Drake, Dan Dailey, and a 16-year-old Wynn Murray.
If it wasn’t for the hit 1939 M-G-M film adaptation of the show, which famously starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Babes in Arms would be a footnote in Broadway history. The film version utilized only two of the songs in the original musical and had a radically revised story line that only hinted at what the original story was about, which had political overtones, featured a character who was a Communist, and two African American dancers (played by the Nicholas Brothers) who were victims of racism.
Babes in Arms was revived on Broadway in 1959 with its book reimagined and defanged by George Oppenheimer. Gone were the controversial political subplots along with some spirited ballet sequences designed by George Balanchine. What was left focused on Rodgers & Hart’s hit-laden score, which includes memorable songs like “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” The Rubicon’s production, presented as a staged reading, utilized the Oppenheimer revival in a way that stressed what it was supposed to stress: the fabulous songs, with just enough context to present the trifle of Oppenheimer’s reconstructed plot.
The cast of ten assembled in front of a regiment of music stands, although having the music and scripts in front of them did not inhibit their acting out their parts. In the story, penny-pinching producer Seymour Fleming (Scott Guy) is attempting to produce a play called “The Deep North,” written by Southern ham playwright Lee Calhoun (played to the hilt by Christopher Carothers). A group of upstart apprentices decides to take advantage of the situation by producing their own show, which they hope to insert after “The Deep North” concludes. That’s basically the story; a fibrous frame from which hangs Richard Rodgers’ mellifluous melodies and Lorenz Hart’s brilliant lyrics.
All the cast members are excellent, but standouts include Ashley Fox Linton as perky Susie, who gets to sing the lovely “My Funny Valentine” to Craig McEldowney’s Val. Erica Hanrahan-Ball got the belter’s role in the play and reached the rafters with the show’s closing number, “Johnny One Note,” as well as “The Lady Is a Tramp,” with its endlessly clever verses. Jesse Einstein was endearing as the daffy Gus, who sings “Blue Moon,” a 1934 R&H tune that was not in the original score. Laura L. Thomas plays the ex-child movie star Jennifer, who has now blossomed into a buxomly attractive singer, although she is still smothered by her stage mother, played with over-the-top verve by Susan Denaker. Rounding out the cast were Jordan Kai Burnett as the exuberant Terry and Chris Guerra as Susie’s open-hearted producer/brother Steve.
The singers were ably accompanied by on-stage pianist/musical director Geraldine Anello.
Babes in Arms reminds us of what musical theater was like before Oklahoma!, when songs were incidental to character development and could stand out on their own outside the context of the story. (You could make a set list for a Frank Sinatra concert just from the songs in this show.) The staged concert setting takes nothing away from the show, because it wasn’t much of a show to begin with. But what it does do is emphasize the genius of Rodgers and Hart’s collaborative efforts in those heady days when songs of romance and wit helped soothe the aching sores of a Depression-weary America.