Michael Ogborn's Baby Case, playing through Sunday at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, contains everything musical fans should love. A serious-minded story, in this case about the kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Lindbergh's infant son. Bouncy music that sounds as if it was yanked from 1930s radio and adorned with sharp, contemporary edges. Well-wrought, insightful lyrics. A killer cast. Dynamic direction by Jeremy Dobrish. Plus a compelling, original point of view. What could possibly go wrong with such an outstanding assemblage of pieces?
Ever hear the phrase "too much of a good thing"? Exactly the same qualities that, from one perspective, make Baby Case one of the most ambitious and best-realized NYMF musicals ever also make it nearly unbearable to sit through. You sense, over most of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, that Ogborn knew his collection of ideas was solid gold, and thus sensed no need to trim, compress, or even corral them. So you don't just get everything that he and his collaborators felt good enough to make the grade — you get everything. In that environment, "impressive" becomes "oppressive" shockingly quickly.
Say, halfway into the opening number. "American Hero" documents how Lindbergh (Will Reynolds) made the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight, how he married society girl Anne Morrow (Anika Larsen), and how they struggled to keep their lives and that of their son, Charles Jr., out of the public spotlight. All while gossip scion Walter Winchell (Michael Thomas Holmes) narrates the news and the history from his radio pulpit, a women's close-harmony trio climbs up the charts, newsboys hawk the daily edition, and the public becomes addicted to a hot new celebrity. Ogborn introduces all his key themes here — the individual versus society, the role of the media in making and breaking lives — but the swirling jumble of them makes it difficult to center yourself.
That trouble does not abate in the following scenes, when nurse Betty Gow (Patricia Noonan) gives her statement about the baby's disappearance simultaneously with the police conducting their multi-pronged investigation and the Lindberghs keening with grief; ravenous folks on both the production and consumption sides of the newspaper business try to make sense and make (or spend) money on the tragedy; the man who discovered the baby's body kindles up a vaudeville act; the maid who lied about her whereabouts the night of the disappearance commits suicide; and a potential suspect, Bruno Hauptmann, is discovered and arrested. All this (and, believe it or not, more) before Act I comes to a close.
It's exciting and energetic, no doubt, especially with Ogborn's precise layering of vocal lines and melodies, and the complex overlapping of Dobrish's staging moments and Zach Blane's never-stopping lights. (The choreography, by Warren Adams, is pointed and persuasive as well, but more self-consciously showy than is ideal.) But packed with 11 songs, precious few of which are low-key stand-and-sing affairs rather than sweeping production numbers, constant and aggressive underscoring, and a towering roster of characters (J. Edgar Hoover and Ginger Rogers are among the cameos), the narrative's heart and soul are too easily smothered.
This is likely Ogborn's intent on some level, to demonstrate how what matters can easily get lost within the sea of what power brokers can sell, but that doesn't stop the overstuffed parade of riches from suffocating. Nor does it excuse the shaky choices that creep into the much weaker second act, which range from the merely bewildering treating of the murder trial as a rapid-fire burlesque and Hauptmann's life-or-death testimony as a comedy number to the truly damaging (and confusing) use of Reynolds and Larsen to double as Hauptmann and his wife. Yes, both couples are victims, but because Lindbergh and Anne don't disappear from the action, you waste precious seconds wondering who exactly is saying or singing what — in a show this ceaselessly busy, that's time you don't have.
The cast is a stunner, with the high-belting Larsen effortlessly conveying unthinkable grief and rage, Reynolds marvelous at maintaining stoicism throughout the most trying circumstances, Holmes cleverly uniting Winchell's quest for blood with his quest for a scoop, and the tiniest of one-off appearances superbly sung. But as legions of people keep filling the stage, vocalizing at incredible length about society, morality, grief, law, love, capital punishment, photography, business attire, ladders, the liquid lubrication of reporters, and selling the baby's hair, it becomes all too easy to stop caring and want all the voluminous talent to be applied to just the one or two messages that actually matter.
If Ogborn can focus his attention and ours on those elemental moments, without diminishing the color, lushness, and commitment that are so essential to the work, he could have a true winner on his hands. That's unlikely to happen, however, as long as he's exhausting his audience before he's fully established his dramatic vernacular. Sad to say, I see no way to accomplish this without serious cuts and rewrites, which means some outstanding material will probably have to go. But Baby Case is too good, too potentially powerful, to sacrifice on the altar of "more is better." Sometimes — as here, alas — more is simply more.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival