Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Delightful Baby Feels Like
The delightful adult musical Baby, which concluded a successful 275 performance run on Broadway in the summer of 1984, is currently spreading joy at the Paper Mill Playhouse in an outstanding production that makes the work feel as fresh as a daisy.
Set on and around a college campus, the story revolves around three disparate couples coping with the joys and difficulties of conception, pregnancy and impending parenthood. Heading a solid 15 actor cast, six of our finest musical stage performers magnificently embody them.
Arlene (Carolee Carmello) and college administrator Alan (Michael Rupert) are well into their forties. With their three daughters out of the home and off to college, they are experiencing the doldrums of empty nest syndrome when an unplanned pregnancy upends their situation.
Pam (LaChanze) and Nick (Norm Lewis), who appear to be about thirty, are varsity coaches. They are mistakenly informed that Pam is pregnant. Both had previously believed that their difficulty in conceiving was "the fault" of the tomboyish Pam, but now they find out to the chagrin of the macho Nick that it is his low count of active sperm that is the culprit.
Lizzie (Moeisha McGill) and Danny (Chad Kimball) are single undergraduates living together who are undaunted by the prospect of parenthood. This is not to say that their evolving circumstances and attitudes do not provide some choppy moments.
Composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., the masters of contemporary theatre songs dealing with adult emotions and relationships, are in fine fettle here. There are more terrific songs than one could reasonably hope for. There is warmth and beauty as well as insight and humor in their outstanding, infectious score. Abetted by Jonathan Tunick's original arrangements, the music feels totally fresh and contemporary.
Even though it is a "book" musical, Baby has an episodic nature which gives it the feel of a revue. Several of book author Sybille Pearson's scenes tend to play like sketches which end in a song on the sketch topic. Not so surprising in that Maltby and Shire wrote the successful revues Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever. Also, at times, there are lines that are cute and clever rather than true and insightful.
The magnificent six principals downplay any generic or caricaturist potential in order to maximize the individual, three dimensional aspects available in their roles.
Michael Rupert expertly portrays the confusion of a middle aged man who realizes that his marriage has become perfunctory, but still wants to preserve the ease and familiarity of his marital partnership. Carolee Carmello fully conveys the angst of his wife who cannot accept the cold comfort of such a relationship.
Rupert is especially delightful in performing the buoyant "Fatherhood Blues" which is sung on a softball field. He uses his acute professionalism to delightfully convey in dance the awkward movement of Alan. Lewis, Kimball, Bill E. Dietrich and Erick Pennick delightfully join him in performing this gem of a theatre song. It conveys character and situation while delivering the easy delight of a charm song. Mature men will be especially touched by Rupert's "Easier to Love."
Carmello is at her considerable best singing the introspective and poignant (and Sondheim-like) "Patterns". Together with Rupert, Carmello touches our hearts and minds with "And What If We Loved Like That."
It is delightful to see the elegant LaChanze back on the Paper Mill stage. Casting against type works perfectly here as LaChanze suitably substitutes athletic energy for tomboyishness. She scores early and strongly with the rousing hit "I Want it All."
As her Nick, Norm Lewis is perfectly cast as a handsome athlete. He is clearly ready to achieve Broadway leading man status. His strong presence and singing are constant joys, beginning with his lyrical section of "At Night She Comes Home to Me." Lewis and LaChanze score strongly with their romantic duet "With You."
Moeisha McGill has personality to spare. She delivers the goods with her first act finale, the well known anthem-like "The Story Goes On." It is a show stopping rendition of a show stopping song.
Chad Kimball is a find as Danny. He is a counterculture-type musician transformed into an incipient husband by impending fatherhood. Kimball captures the delightful, slightly goofy fun of Danny while eschewing the excesses to which his role is prone. His approach enhances the delight of his folk song "I Chose Right."
One only has to listen to the first track of the original cast CD and the extended cutesy spoken narration which has been wisely and deftly edited for this production to be grateful that Maltby and Shire and book author Sybille Pearson have "carefully overseen" this "20th anniversary production" of their 1983-84 Broadway Baby.
Credit must also go to Mark Hoebee who has done his finest Paper Mill work to date here. The smooth, unaffected professionalism of the entire production is a big plus.
The redoubtable Michael Anania has designed an appropriate, fluid set consisting of a large array of sliding and flying panels which form any number of most playable configurations on a circular stage. The front of the stage extends over the orchestra pit to bring the action closer to the audience, and there are various furnishings (most notably a bed) and props.
The costumes by Thom Heyer and lighting design by F. Mitchell Dana most ably and attractively complete the visual picture.
(clockwise from left) Norm Lewis, Michael Rupert,
Carolee Carmello, Chad Kimball, Moeisha McGill, La Chanze
The first season bearing the full imprint of Paper Mill's new chief Michael Gennaro begins in September. Ambitious and risk taking, it is a season which is exciting to contemplate. A small scale world premiere musical (Harold and Maude), a Stephen Schwartz musical which failed to reach Broadway (The Baker's Wife), the George and Ira Gershwin Pulitzer Prize musical (Of Thee I Sing), a gloriously melodic Harnick and Bock favorite (She Loves Me), a recent and acclaimed Canadian play (The Drawer Boy, and, to quote a critic with whom I agree, "the last, great musical of the 20th century" (Ragtime).
All of these shows are Paper Mill premieres. Surely, not all will be to everyone's taste. Given the present level of arts funding, it is unlikely that any will be produced on as lavish and opulent a scale as some productions of the past. However, Paper Mill clearly plans to maintain and rebuild its subscription base by becoming more vital and exciting. There are pitfalls in the road ahead, but that is always true for a truly valuable theatre.
Experiencing the rich pleasures of Baby, one can't help but feel that the new Paper Mill is already here in the form of this rarely produced, effectively rethought contemporary American musical. The production is first rate in all respects and brings us as fine a cast as is available on any stage. Anyone reading this who fails to get to Paper Mill by May 9th will surely regret having missed this memorable milestone production.
Baby will continue performances through May 9, 2004 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online www.papermill.org.
Baby book by Sybille Pearson; music by David Shire; lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.; directed by Mark Hoebee. Cast: (in alphabetical order): Carolee Carmello (Arlene); Chad Kimball (Danny); LaChanze (Pam); Norm Lewis (Nick); Moeisha McGill (Lizzie); Michael Rupert (Alan); and (in order of appearance) Allison Briner; Rosena Hill; Lenny Wolpe; Bill E. Dietrich; Erick Pinnick; Lois Sonnier Hart; Kelly Ellenwood; Brynn O'Malley; Julian Reyes