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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the website on April 28, 2004. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: "Baby" at Paper Mill Playhouse

by Simon Saltzman

For whatever reason, "Baby" wasn’t exactly a big bouncing hit when its

creators delivered it to Broadway in 1983. It ran a bit under 9 months

(275 performances). But it has since grown into healthy adolescence in

regional and community theaters. A slightly tweaked version of the

musical by David Shire (music) Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics), and

Sybille Pearson (book, based upon a story developed with Susan

Yankowitz) has definitely come of age even more gracefully in the

spiffy looking and exuberantly performed production at the Paper Mill

Playhouse. Under the direction of Mark S. Hoebee (who also did the

choreography), "Baby" moves freshly through its intentionally gooey

and cooing components. The earnestly appealing score may reflect its

vintage, but an absolutely first rate attractive cast has been

assembled to give it new life and immediacy.

The musical has an umbilical connection to the considerations and

concerns of three disparate, but academia-connected, couples, each of

whom deal respectively with the difficulties of conception, the

preparation for childbirth, and the issues of parenting . With a song

for every mood change, "Baby" pampers its accredited characters as

well as its academic subject.

Recognized for their sophisticated theater songs that more often than

not ruminate on the romantic anxieties of discontented adults (the

off-Broadway revues "Starting Here, Starting Now," "Closer than

Ever"), the team of Maltby and Shire has not had the luck they deserve

co-writing a score for a book musical ("Big" should have been bigger

on Broadway in 1996 but it undeservedly flopped). It’s true that

"Baby" still has the feeling of a revue, but its sketch-like episodes

are well integrated into the single theme, with only an occasional

lapse or digression. If nothing else their score for "Baby" shows off

the gifted collaborators at their most affectionate and melodic. You

may not know the songs as standards, but they do stay in your head

long after you’ve left the theater. And what more could you ask than

having the fine musical director Eugene Gwozdz in charge of the

original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.

The hitch that complicates the lives of a pair of in-love but

unmarried undergrads is that she craves motherhood without marriage.

With their three children in college, a middle-aged couple can’t

remember "that night at the Plaza. Without a doubt, we did more than

pass out." The third pair of expectant parents discovers that making

babies involves more work for them than coaching varsity sports.

While "Baby" makes most of its points by focusing on both the toying

and coping with conception, it leaves ample space for its sometimes

muddled and befuddled characters to come through as recognizable human

beings. As the undergrad mother-to-be, Moeisha McGill sparkles with

rebellious independence. McGill, who was last seen Off-Broadway in

"They Wrote That," and on Broadway in "Mamma Mia," conveys the mixed

emotions of young woman balancing dependence and independence, but she

also takes complete charge of the moment with Act 1’s electrifying

"The Story Goes On." As her lover, the science turned music major;

Chad Kimball gets all his comic and musical timing right amid visions

of himself as a rock star and makes his transformation into a reliable

partner as comforting as his big number "I Chose Right."

As the older couple, Carolee Carmello and Michael Rupert certainly

behave like they’ve been married for 20 years. Notwithstanding

Carmello’s estimable Broadway and Off-Broadway credits including

"Parade," "Kiss Me Kate," and "Hello Again," her performance as the

wife saddened by a marriage that has lost its spark, is incredibly

touching. Her reflective solo "Patterns" (generously reinstated after

being cut from the original production), and her duet with Rupert "And

What If We Loved Like That," mine the poignancy that propel both of

these lovely ballads.

If the coaches, played by an ebullient LaChanze and an undaunted Norm

Lewis have problems conceiving, the trouble can’t be traced to the

handsome Lewis’ rich and resonating baritone voice. Their best scenes,

the ones that test the romance in their relationship, are a hoot in

their attempt to conceive "by the book." There is little doubt when

the "Once on this Island" discovery LaChanze sings the demanding "I

Want It All," that she means it. This song performed in the doctor’s

waiting office also allows the women – LaChanze, Carmello and McGill –

to have some fun dribbling a basketball. LaChanze’s gusto is matched

by Lewis’ brio and charismatic stage presence, particularly when he

sings the impassioned "At Night When She Comes Home to Me." The men

have their athletic fun with baseball bats in "Fatherhood Blues." The

always amusing Lenny Wolpe gets the biggest laughs in the show going a

little over-the-top as a fertility doctor with new contact lenses.

Whatever plot changes (a significant one for one couple) have been

implemented, "Baby" might have benefited by being more topical with

the substitution of a same-sex partnership.

Thom Heyer’s campus costumes are bright. Michael Anania’s set design,

enhanced by F. Mitchell Dana’s colorful lighting, is a visual treat

that employs the deceptively simple use of gliding interacting panels

all in the service of the obligatory bed and a few smaller props.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, "Baby," thanks to Hoebee’s inventive

staging, is most definitely a bigger bundle of joy for a new


— Simon Saltzman

@lt:"Baby", Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. $30

to $67. 973-376-4343.

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