Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Babes in Arms at The Willows Theater

Also see Richard's review of The Glass Menagerie

The Willows Theatre is currently presenting the Rodgers and Hart classic 1937 musical Babes in Arms with the book of the original Broadway show. The first production opened at the Shubert Theatre on April 14, 1937, with the New York Times critic saying the musical was "full of good feeling, [with] a score that is altogether superb." The show had a difficult time box-office-wise since Variety said, "No nudity, no show girls, no plush or gold plate." It lost money at the box office until the beginning of July when it was the only musical open in New York. Suddenly the gross shot up fifty percent and it ran 289 performances. Following its closing, Babes in Arms was rarely revived, even with one of the composer's and lyricist's greatest scores. The book is the problem.

The original cast featured Mitzi Green as Baby Rose and then up and coming tap dancing geniuses, the Nicholas Brothers In the chorus of "kids" were Alfred Drake and Dan Dailey. The production also featured one of the first ballet sequences called a "dream ballet," choreographed by George Balanchine. Standards like "My Funny Valentine," "Johnny One Note," "Where or When" and "The Lady Is A Tramp" are part of this amazing score. Today most cabaret artists have one or two of these songs in their repertoire.

MGM did the film version of the show with their two leading musical stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. They threw out the book and most of the songs leaving only two of the original songs in the movie version. In the late '50s, a new book was written for the musical. It omitted several subplots, such as the racial and socio-political themes. Colleges and regional theater used this new book for the musical. In 1999, New York's Encores! presented a concert version going back to the original book to show audiences what the musical was really like for that 1937 audience. The San Francisco 42nd Street Moon Company did a concert version in 2000 with the original book, too. These were the only two stage productions that I have seen of the kicky musical prior to this new version at The Willows.

The Willows Production, with adaptation by John Guare, follows a group of teenagers who are children of vaudeville performers living on Long Island. They are going to put on a show in their barn to stop the welfare department from sending them to work on a farm since their fathers are away touring the vaudeville circuit for the summer. The original Babes in Arms had one of the first racial themes as a subplot in a Broadway musical when a Southern "gentlemen" refused to allow two black tap dancers to go on stage with the white folks. Even the New York Times critic showed racism in his review, when he said of the Nicholas Brothers, "there are dancing fools, Harold and Fayard Nicholas, who clatter across the stage with the rhythmic frenzy that only the Negroes can conjure out of a Broadway night."

Andrew Holtz, the director, also wanted his audience to see what the 1937 production looked like so he reverted to the original book. He also secured four of the best singers in the Bay Area for the leads. Patrick Leveque, who has been making a name for himself as one of our best leading male singers, plays Val. His first song in the production is "Where or When," and his voice range is marvelous. It is an extraordinary rendition of this standard. His whole presence on stage is extremely professional. He should go far in this business. Equally good is Virginia Wilcox who plays his love interest, Billie Smith. She has a delicate voice and she is outstanding in "My Funny Valentine," which she sings with great heart to her boyfriend. She also does an exciting, "The Lady Is a Tramp." Shawna Darling as Dolores Reynolds is a little bundle of talent with a great booming voice. She belts out the comic number, "I Wish I Were in Love Again," along with partner Jake Manabat who plays Gus. Mr. Manabat has wonderful phrasing with Lorenz Hart's lyrics and a very pleasing voice, though I think his voice could have been much louder. This young man who was in the second touring company of Rent has a mellow voice when he should be belting.

Javier Munoz, who is listed as the dance captain, has terrific ballet presence. Mr. Munoz, who was in some of the Venus Rising Productions, is outstanding in the dream ballet sequence. The ballet itself is a little ragged, but I give the company great credit in attempting to do a Balanchine ballet since I doubt any of these young people are members of a ballet troupe. Lennie Pezhman Olinga and Orlando Darnell Macon play the Nicholas Brothers roles with Lennie doing most of the tap dancing. He is a little stiff during his performance but his steps are impressive. Baby Rose is played by Kerry Wininger and she has a personable voice; however she should belt out the show stopping number, "Johnny One Note," with a bit more bombast. That rousing number closes the first act with the whole cast coming out, tap dancing to the upbeat song. The whole cast also give their all to the number "Babes in Arms," with good choreography coming from Sheri Stockdale.

It is a pleasure to see these kids singing and dancing their hearts out to entertain the audience in a good old fun, clean, clever and tuneful musical. It runs through April 21 at the Willows Theater Company, Willows Shopping Center, Concord, CA. Regular admission is $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and $20 for students and Willows members.

The next production will be the Bay Area Premier of Joyful Noise, by Tim Slover. It opens on April 29 and runs through May 26. Call (925)798-1300 for tickets to either production.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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