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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the
princetoninfo.com 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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