Babes in Arms at Reprise!
Also see Sharon's review of Assassins
There is a telling moment in the second act of Reprise's production of Babes in Arms. Steve Vinovich, as the money-grubbing theatre owner the ensemble of kids will soon rebel against, gives a pre-curtain speech before the opening of his latest flop. In announcing the shows his playhouse will present the next season, he mentions the names of many famous stars. He then adds that those people have been approached, but "you never know who you're going to get." For Reprise audiences, the joke strikes uncomfortably close to home. Babes in Arms is just the latest in an apparently never ending string of shows in which the announced leads have been replaced by other performers.
Calling attention to that fact is a bad move for Babes in Arms, as neither of its two new leads give particularly stellar performances. Jodi Benson replaces Rachel York as Bunny Byron, the woman trying to save her share of the theatre. (The "Hey, kids, let's put on a show in a barn, and raise money to save the theatre, and along the way show the bad theatre owner what kids are capable of!" plot is so hokey and contrived, it doesn't deserve mention other than as a frame on which to hang some wonderful Rodgers & Hart tunes.) Benson has a sweet, light delivery that isn't suited to her numbers. She does well with the playful "Way Out West On West End Avenue," and her "Johnny One Note" isn't bad, but she just doesn't have a big enough belt to deliver a solid "The Lady is a Tramp."
Joey McIntyre fares little better as Valentine White, the role originally advertised as played by Neil Patrick Harris. Given McIntyre's pop star history of arena concerts, one would think he would have no difficulty selling a song to the back of the Freud Playhouse, but he does. His voice is surprisingly thin and drops into a falsetto rather than hitting his big high notes full-on. McIntyre is not helped by Jenna Leigh Green as Jennifer, the character with whom he has two duets, "Where or When" and "You're Nearer." The two have absolutely no chemistry together. While this is actually correct for the plot of the show, it does nothing for selling these beautiful love songs.
The one shining light in this production - and it's a beacon you could land a 747 by - is Bets Malone as Susie Ward. Malone stands out from the ensemble of clean-cut young people even before it becomes apparent that she's playing a leading role; her perkiness is somehow infectious, rather than irritating. Malone has a beautiful full voice which is overflowing with unrequited love in "My Funny Valentine." She follows up with a swinging good "Imagine." But what really steals the show for her is a short reprise of "The Lady is a Tramp," in which Malone's power just highlights how miscast Jodi Benson is.
Jodi Benson, Joey McIntyre, Bets Malone,
Ruta Lee and Steve Vinovich
There is some decent supporting work here, too: Jeffrey Schecter and Beth Malone are cute as the second banana couple that sings "I Wish I Were in Love Again"; Tom Beyer gets some laughs as a too-Southern playwright; and Ruta Lee, although underused, has a moment or two as an overbearing stage mother.
And you can't discount the value of a good Rodgers & Hart score. If this company were singing lesser material, the production would hardly be memorable. But, as it is, they're singing some true classics, and hearing these songs performed live just brings a tap to your toe and a smile to your face. However, with this material, this show could have been a knockout. As it is, it manages to be good fun.
Babes in Arms continues at UCLA's Freud Playhouse through September 21, 2003. For tickets, call (310) 825-2101 or click www.reprise.org.
Reprise! Broadway's Best, Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director; presents Babes in Arms. Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Book by George Oppenheimer, based on the original by Rodgers & Hart. Scenic Design Evan A. Bartoletti; Costume Design Alayna Miller; Lighting Design Tom Ruzika; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Associate Musical Director Tomas Griep; Music Coordinator Joe Soldo; Technical Director Peter Falco; Orchestrations Don Walker; Dance Arrangements Peter Howard; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A; Stage Manager Stephanie Coltrin Meyer; Press Representative David Elzer/Demand PR; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Managing Director Jim Gardia. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Gerald Sternbach; Choreographed by Dan Mojica; Directed by Glenn Casale.
Photo by Tom Drucker