Silliness and Music Prevailed
With so many dark and depressing musicals dotting the New York theater scene, a zany time was had by all and sundry at Babes in Arms , the first of this year’s Encores productions of staged concert versions of seldom-performed musicals at the City Center, Feb. 12 to 14. Nobody went away from this one saying, “If only they had some songs.” The audience was singing along in the overture to the strains of “Where or When” and by the time they got around to “My Funny Valentine,” I thought the lady next to me was going to join the cast on stage.
I’ve never seen anything but the M-G-M version of this 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical, so I always associate it with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but the cherished score remains zestful under any circumstances. Even after John Guare cut and reshaped hunks of the book, monumental silliness prevailed, but under the guidance of director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, a 32-member cast with zip, dash, exuberance and astonishing versatility and professionalism propelled Babes in Arms from one ovation to the next.
The plot, about a Long Island town of show business kids trying to put on a barn show to support themselves while their parents are away in vaudeville, must have seemed idiotic even back in 1937. In a convoluted story that also includes a racist bigot, a baby who’s already a washed-up Hollywood star and a famous French aviator who lands accidentally in the cornfield on his flight from Paris to Newark (!), songs appear for no other reason than the fact that Rodgers and Hart had just breezed in fresh from their piano bench.
But what songs! “Johnny One Note,” “Way Out West (on West End Avenue),” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady Is a Tramp”–well, who cares if they have nothing to do with the plot. The dopey and ludicrous book, as well as lyrics that rhyme “antelope” with “cantaloupe,” were all served with amiable zest by a knockout cast that included such veterans as Donna McKechnie, Don Correia, Priscilla Lopez and Thommie Walsh as the parents (all original members of A Chorus Line ); and such newcomers as pie-faced Christopher Fitzgerald, golden-voiced Erin Dilly (a strong reminder of the young Julie Andrews), brassy soubrette Jessica Stone, rotund but Merman-piped Melissa Rain Anderson, and Australian cabaret sensation David Campbell, who made a dashing substitute for Mickey Rooney and finally got a chance to sing the kind of material he should be doing in his club act.
The dream ballets were a riot, and the ingenious Egyptian dance number with canoe oars and dish towels for Sphinx headdresses, was brilliant enough to have been in an M-G-M musical of its own. (In fact, it was. Ms. Marshall has obviously seen Robert Alton’s staging of June Allyson’s “Cleopatterer” number in Till the Clouds Roll By .) I am all in favor of big talents borrowing from even bigger talents for the common good. In the case of Babes in Arms , the audience was the winner. What a treat to forget your troubles and just get happy with a robust gang of gifted troupers facing life’s most daunting alternative–the work farm or Broadway!
The Encores series is fast becoming one of my favorite annual picnics. The next of this season’s three productions, slated for six performances March 25 to March 29, will be the first revival ever of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 , a revue originally produced by Billie Burke, Ziegfeld’s widow, with comedy sketches staged by John Murray Anderson, choreography by George Balanchine and the aforementioned Robert Alton, songs by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke, and a cast that included Fanny Brice, Josephine Baker, Bobby Clark, Judy Canova, sultry-voiced Gertrude Niesen (the Julie Wilson of her day), Avon Long, the Nicholas Brothers and two newcomers nobody ever heard of who stepped out on the stage at the Winter Garden Theater and stopped the show. Their names were Bob Hope and Eve Arden.
This will be a tall order, but I think Encores is up to the challenge. The clamoring for tickets can already be heard, so don’t say you haven’t been warned in time. If Babes in Arms was an Encores valentine, I can’t wait to see what they’ll pull out of their bonnets for Easter.
It’s the Dog, Stupid!
The Broadway revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is like an exploding valentine. New songs and fresh material from the Peanuts cartoons created since the show’s first run in 1967 add dimension to the microscopic world of life’s clichés as seen through the clear-as-gumdrop eyes of precocious children. The dance routines by Jerry Mitchell, the talented choreographer who staged the fine terpsichore in the highly acclaimed Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Follies , are both imaginative and breezy, and the zippy comic-book sets by David Gallo look just like Charles M. Schulz drew them with a 36-assortment box of deluxe crayons.
The cast is delicious, from saucer-eyed Anthony Rapp’s Charlie, who never gets a valentine himself and can’t keep a kite in the air but has a big heart, to Kristin Chenoweth’s Sally, the eternal pessimist in Shirley Temple curls whose favorite word is “No!” to B.D. Wong’s deep-thinking, deeply insecure, thumb-sucking Linus. But the real discovery here is Roger Bart, a scruffy, pettable Snoopy the Dog who laments the fact that a mutt has so little chance of advancement. See this charming show for many feel-good reasons, but especially for Mr. Bart’s big “11 o’clock number” called “Suppertime,” stopping the show by tearing up the stage (and his puppy chow) like a canine cross between Danny Kaye and Al Jolson.