Babes in Arms
The Reviews

February 13, 1999 THEATER REVIEW 'Babes in Arms': Utterly Invigorating By BEN BRANTLEY

NEW YORK -- What is that exotic, pleasure-making activity taking place at City Center this weekend? It is officially described as a musical, but surely that's not the right word for this suave, silly and zephyrlike concoction that makes you want to dance all the way down Seventh Avenue. Anyone who has spent time on Broadway this season knows that musicals just aren't this much fun.

Once again, the Encores series of American Musicals in Concert is demonstrating exactly what's lacking in most song-and-dance shows in New York, where earnest behemoths like "Ragtime" are major tourist attractions. Kathleen Marshall's witty, utterly invigorating resurrection of "Babes in Arms," the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical, is almost too enjoyable for a theatergoer's good.

The show, which opened on Thursday, runs only through Sunday, and then what's left for the hedonists? It will feel like the closing of the last speak-easy in a Prohibition town.

Since 1994, Encores has been presenting productions of vintage American fare that are only nominally just concerts. Although the shows have no proper scenery and the performers carry scripts, what happens onstage completely conjures a world in ways that make the pageantry of Disney's "Lion King" seem bloodless.

Staged and choreographed by Ms. Marshall, the series' artistic director, "Babes in Arms" may feel like the freshest thing going, but considered coldly, the musical would seem to have the shelf life of egg salad. Its very premise is a hard-core, much parodied cliche: A group of spunky, enterprising kids (in a Long Island town), threatened with being sent to a work farm when their vaudevillian parents go on tour, decide to earn their own way by, yes, putting on a show in an old red barn.

Even in 1937, critics remarked on the slightness and sketchiness of the book. But no one carped about the songs, a majority of which have gone on to become pop standards, including "Where or When," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "Way Out West" and "Johnny One-Note."

Needless to say, with Rob Fisher and his Coffee Club Orchestra providing the music, Richard Rodgers' score, a blend of foot-tapping swinginess and wistful caresses, is presented in life-giving, loving arrangements. The extra bonus in hearing these old favorites is discovering their original contexts, whose sensibility is miles away from the sophisticated smokiness of a cabaret.

From left: David Campbell, Kevin Cahoon, Perry Laylon Ojeda and Erin DillyAs heavenly as Lena Horne's or Frank Sinatra's take on "The Lady Is a Tramp" may be, how refreshing to see it done as a buoyant paean to youthful liberty by a fresh-faced, relatively unknown actress like Erin Dilly. (Plus you get verse after verse of deliciously rhymed Lorenz Hart lyrics that you probably didn't know existed.) Or to realize that "My Funny Valentine" was first sung about a character whose name is Valentine, a song-prone philosophy student here portrayed with shimmering, all-American brightness by the young Australian cabaret star David Campbell.

Ms. Dilly's character is a tramp only because she likes a life of care-free vagabondage. She's really pretty wholesome, as are all of the lively young things in "Babes," which is not to say they are without sexual instincts. The show glows with a healthy, frolicsome eroticism, most pointedly embodied by Jessica Stone and Christopher Fitzgerald as a pair of Punch and Judy lovers, that is the perfect antidote to the solemn carnality of "The Blue Room."

Ms. Stone, who suggests an angular Joan Blondell and has comic timing you could cut your finger on, and the Puckish Fitzgerald get to sing "I Wish I Were in Love Again," that thorny ode to the tribulations of romance and a reminder that though the setting may be sunny and rural, Hart's lyrics remain martini dry. It is also danced here as a delicious pas de deux that is part embrace, part wrestling hold.

Ms. Marshall's choreography throughout has a souffle-light inventiveness that makes you wonder why she hasn't been forced into contractual perpetuity on Broadway. She does the darnedest things with numbers ranging from the youth-on-the-march extroversion of the title song (led by the appealing Perry Laylon Ojeda, late of "On the Town") to the sublimely ridiculous "Johnny One-Note," in which a chorus line of Egyptian dancers making like hieroglyphics find all sorts of uses for canoe paddles.

Then there's the dream ballet, prompted by the reveries of Peter (the winningly nerdy Kevin Cahoon), a self-proclaimed communist, after he wins the Irish Sweepstakes. The show's nimble core dance team effortlessly takes us from Manhattan to Paris to the briny deep (don't ask). The original choreographer of "Babes," by the way, was Balanchine, to whom Ms. Marshall nods genially while making the dances her own.

In addition to communism, assorted social and political issues are raised with a frivolity that would be unthinkable a decade after the show opened. "Babes," at least in its entirety, has been considered unrevivable because of a subplot in which a rich Southern racist (Shaun Powell) tries to keep a pair of dancing brothers (Scott Irby-Ranniar and Carter Anthony Williams), who are black, from participating in the barn show.

Here, with a little finessing of the script (whose adaptation was overseen by no less a playwright than John Guare) and some significant deletion of song lyrics, the brothers get to stay. This is a blessing, because both performers are charmers, and the 9-year-old Williams tap dances with an easygoing confidence that could give Savion Glover pause.

There are too many treasures in this "Babe" to itemize. But you should know about Melissa Rain Anderson, who plays a former run-to-plumpness child movie star and is a musical rarity: a belter with a velvet touch. The show's danced prologue, performed by those departing vaudevillian parents and executed to perfection, is given a special associative resonance by Priscilla Lopez, Thommie Walsh, Donna McKechnie and Don Correia, who all appeared in Michael Bennett's legendary "Chorus Line."

The set, overseen by John Lee Beatty, is minimal, although the production still convincingly evokes a plane crash and an underwater encounter with a mermaid, while Peter Kaczorowski's shifting colored lighting slyly matches changing moods. And the period jokes, by the way, are still funny, despite their period topicality.

I'd quote a few, but somehow they wither in print. You'll have to trust me when I say that nothing in the production gives off, as one of Hart's lyrics puts it, "the faint aroma of performing seals." What "Babes in Arms" smells like is springtime.

Beautiful `Babes' / Rodgers-Hart classic shines in concert form

By Aileen Jacobson. STAFF WRITER

BABES IN ARMS. Concert version of the 1937 musical by Richard Rodgers (music and book) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics and book). Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, musical direction by Rob Fisher, set by John Lee Beatty, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert, City Center, West 55th Street, Manhattan, through Sunday. Seen Thursday.

WHAT BETTER SHOW to put on over a Valentine's weekend than the one that contains that wry sweetheart of a song, "My Funny Valentine"?

And speaking of putting on a show, "Babes in Arms" is the original. That is, it's the musical that started all those Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney "let's-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn" films when it was turned into a movie in 1939, two years after the original Rodgers and Hart hit debuted on Broadway.

Strangely, the movie only borrowed the somewhat dopey plot - about kids trying to raise money so they can avoid being sent to a work farm - and two of the songs: the title tune and the lovely "Where or When."

So resurrecting the 1937 score became another challenge that thewonderful "City Center Encores!" series has taken up. And once again, it has triumphed. Sounding chipper and looking sensational, the youthful cast scampers through a classic score - more hits than any other Rodgers and Hart collaboration, there are enough breaks for ballets and Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, under Kathleen Marshall's excellent direction and clever choreography, to make this feel more like a fully staged musical than a concert version. Marshall finds inventive uses for oars, a rippling blue cloth and a mermaid. And the score, under musical director Rob Fisher's sprightly hand, played by the spirited Coffee Club Orchestra, sounds fresh-minted.

Adding to the fun is an opening sequence showing four of the parents of the teenagers left behind on Long Island, as the adults perform the vaudeville routines that they're about to take on the road. The errant moms and dads are played by a quartet of "Chorus Line" alums - Donna McKechnie, Priscilla Lopez, Don Correia and Thommie Walsh - who disappear for most of the rest of the show.

But the real stars are the young people, most stunningly a 9-year-old tap dancer, Cartier Anthony Williams, who already has appeared on programs with Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, and is clearly a talent. Scott Irby-Ranniar, who plays his older brother, is no slouch, either. Just as the 1937 version gave a leg up to such future stars as Alfred Drake and Ray Heatherton, so this one may boost a few careers, too.

A sprightly Erin Dilly portrays Billie Smith, a failed young actress on her way back from Hollywood who helps out the teenagers and falls in love with one of them, Val LaMar, played by David Campbell, an Australian now making his mark in New York. Dilly sings terrifically, especially in "The Lady Is a Tramp," which, we learn, has to do with hitting the road as a vagabond. Funny, how "tramp" received a different meaning when Frank Sinatra sang it.

Taking on a brassy-voiced role that Ethel Merman would have loved is Melissa Rain Anderson, making an auspicious New York debut as Baby Rose, former child star. She brings down the act-one curtain with "Johnny One-Note" and sparks a huge act-two production number with "Imagine." Playing sparring lovers, feisty Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone turn "I Wish I Were in Love Again" into a comic brawl.

Marshall has taken most of the sting out of what could today be seen as an abusive relationship by making these two an even match. Likewise, playwright John Guare's script streamlining handles a racial element - the hero slugs a racist bad guy - tastefully and pares down some of the ridiculous turns, including a plot-resolving crash landing by a French aviator. The corny jokes and epithets - "gosh darn it" - and iconic lines about showbiz and barns glisten like jewels.

New talent brings ``Babes in Arms'' score back to life

Tuesday February 16, 1999

By Charles Isherwood

NEW YORK (Variety) - The now-beloved City Center Encores! series of excavated Broadway musicals in concert kicked off its sixth season in kicky fashion with the original ``let's put on a show'' show, Rodgers & Hart's 1937 ``Babes in Arms.''

The fresh-faced young cast of up-and-comers and relative unknowns made for an appealing contrast to the traditional Encores! offerings, which tend to be packed with star turns by more established names. Here it was bright new talent bringing to exuberant life an ageless score.

Despite that standard-studded score, among Rodgers & Hart's very finest, ``Babes in Arms'' has mostly proved revival-proof due to a featherweight and at times exceedingly silly book.

John Guare is rather intriguingly credited as script consultant on this version, and his ministrations have been useful. He appears to have pared away plenty, while accenting the book's still snappy show business jokes and amusingly hoary developments.

A phalanx of Long Island youngsters comically materializes from nowhere when hero Val LaMar (David Campbell) suggests ``the gang'' put on a show to keep themselves from being sent off to the work farm, whatever that is, by the mildly nefarious sheriff. It seems the parents of Val and his pal Marshall (Perry Laylon Ojeda) are away working the dying vaudeville circuit.

Various minor tribulations ensue when snotty Southern boy Lee Calhoun (Shaun Powell) withdraws his financial backing even as he pursues Val's itinerant girlfriend Billie Smith (Erin Dilly).

The show's cheerfully ludicrous conclusion is grabbed from thin air, as a French aviator lands on Val's field and gives the kids the publicity they need - call him a deus ex flying machina.

The kids are all charmers, serving up the cliched sweetness of their characters without a trace of a wink. Campbell, a cabaret name hailing from Down Under, is naturally a strong singer, dueting gracefully with Dilly on ``Where or When'' and one of the show's few lesser-known tunes, the second-act ``All at Once.'' He proves himself an able comedian as well.

Dilly, a veteran of the Guthrie Theater's bomb revival of the show, is utterly winning in the strange role of the slightly hard-bitten ingenue that Judy Garland played in the film version.

The handsome Ojeda, underappreciated for his lovely turn as Gabey in ``On the Town,'' leads the kids in the title tune with a pleasing and robust voice.

Jessica Stone uses her lanky frame and Goldie Hawn-ish comic chops to snappy effect as Dolores Stone, the sheriff's daughter who's generous with her affections.

And Melissa Rain Anderson makes a vocally smashing New York debut as the ex-child star Baby Rose. Her powerhouse ``Johnny One-Note,'' abetted by director Kathleen Marshall's witty choreography and the scene-stealing tapping of dynamo tyke Cartier Anthony Williams, closes the first act on a high note.

The second act droops a bit, with the ballet sequence starring Kevin Cahoon's gangly sometime-communist Peter going on longer than seems warranted, energetically goofy though Cahoon is. And the plot, such as it is, all but evaporates.

But ``Babes in Arms'' dates from an era in which heavy dramatic demands weren't made of musicals; it was enough to pass the time breezily until the next melody or bit of business came along.

The pleasure in that aesthetic still shines, particularly when the score is pure gold, and an effervescent cast is on hand to burnish it.

With: Priscilla Lopez, Thommie Walsh, Perry Laylon Ojeda, Donna McKechnie, Don Correia, David Campbell, Erin Dilly, Richard Riehle, Christopher Fitzgerald, Shaun Powell, Matthew Ballinger, Jessica Stone, Kevin Cahoon, Scott Irby-Ranniar, Cartier Anthony Williams, Melissa Rain Anderson, Matt McGrath, Michael McCormick, Chris Hoch, Mark Lanyon, Daniel C. Levine, Ben Saypol, Pamela Jordan, Tina Ou, Amanda Paige, Amber Stone, Justin Greer, Josh Prince, Noah Racey, James Tabeek, Kate Baldwin, Sharon Richards.

A City Center Encores! presentation of a musical in concert in two acts with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book by Rodgers and Hart.

Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Musical director, Rob Fisher. Script consultant, John Guare. Scenic consultant, John Lee Beatty; costume coordinator, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Scott Lehrer; production stage manager, Maximo Torres; original orchestrations, Hans Spialek; musical coordinator, Seymour Red Press. Opened, reviewed Feb. 11,1999.


Youth wins out in a high-spirited version of `Babes in Arms'

By Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press, 02/12/99

It has taken a sparkling concert version of ''Babes in Arms'' to make us realize how much we have been missing in this most musically barren of theater seasons.

Forget that its story is a variation on the tale of ''Hey kids, let's put on show.'' How many musicals boast a score that contains as many standards as this 1937 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart collaboration - 'Where or When,'' ''I Wish I Were in Love Again,'' ''My Funny Valentine,''Johnny One Note'' and ''The Lady Is a Tramp''?

Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall is the evening's heroine, pulling together a cast of largely unknown young performers for this year's opening offering of ''Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert.''

'Concert'' has become something of a misnomer at these annual proceedings. Performers do carry bound copies of the script, the excellent orchestra (under the inspired direction of Rob Fisher) does sit on stage and microphones are scattered prominently across the front of the large playing area.

Yet Marshall has done such a splendid job of moving the musical, including two large-scale dance numbers, that the production has the feeling of a fully staged show.

If ''Babes in Arms'' is to succeed, it must capture the high spirits its title suggests. This concert does - with talent to spare.

David Campbell and Erin Dilly, the musical's leads, exude the brashness and sass that the rousing title song only suggests. Yet when necessary, they can be meltingly romantic, especially when singing ''Where or When,'' one of Rodgers and Hart's finest love songs. Dilly also delivers an exuberant version of ''The Lady Is a Tramp,'' while ricocheting across the stage.

Offering fine support are Melissa Rain Anderson as a former child star, who can still belt out a song; a fleet-footed Kevin Cahoon as an impressionistic Irish sweepstakes winner, and little Cartier Anthony Williams, a tap-dancer who could be a younger version of Savion Glover.

The minimal story, about the children of touring vaudevillians, youngsters who may be forced to go to a work farm unless the revue they are staging succeeds.

Of course, that never happens. This is musical comedy after all. But the device that wraps up the plot literally falls from the sky, in the form of a French aviator, who is a Gallic equivalent of Lucky Lindy.

The songs, particularly in the original orchestrations by Hans Spialek, don't sound as if they are more than 60 years old. They are fresh and fun, just like the show itself.