Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
The score for Baby is one of my favorites; spinning the LP, which I did about a week before my visit to Manatee Players, gets my emotions in overdrive. "Fatherhood Blues," "I Chose Right," "Patterns" and "And What if We Had Loved Like That?" stir up something deep inside me, and in my opinion "The Story Goes On" is one of the strongest first act closers in the entire Broadway canon. Sybille Pearson's book is not on the same level. I find the musical works best with the bigger, broader emotions in the music than in the specific dramatic situations that drive them. Baby was not a big hit on Broadway and, much as I love their work, Maltby and Shire together have not had much success on the Great White Way.
This production is being performed to tracks, which I think is a major mistake. Pre-recorded accompaniment deprives the singers of overtones, which are vital in staying in tune and this production is plagued by dicey intonation, especially when the music breaks into harmonies. The score is musically complex and not having a conductor to give cues also adds additional strain on the actors. Ill-serving the strongest element of this musical seems to defeat the entire project.
Baby is the story of three intertwined couples, two having a baby and the other very much wanting to. Our youngest couple is Danny Hooper, played by Kody Ramirez, and Lizzie Fields, played by Michelle Northcraft. They are college students unexpectedly pregnant. Mr. Ramirez has the most trouble singing to the tracks. I am fairly certain he could have done much better with live accompaniment. He does bring almost perfect physicality to his role. Ms. Northcraft has one of the strongest voices in the cast, which is great since she has some of the best music, including "The Story Goes On," and is part of two duets, "What Could Be Better?" and "Two People in Love."
Our middle couple are gym teachers Nick and Pam Sakarian played by Colton Larsen and Christen Preziosi; both are vocally strong, and good actors. Our senior couple are Alan and Arlene McNally, played by Callaghan Mayer and Chrystal Juaire. He flounders a bit vocally, due to the circumstances; she overcomes the obstacles in her path except at the hardest moments. She is excellent in "Patterns," an extremely intimate song, but the inflexibility of tempo boxes her in a bit, where she might like to stretch a phrase here or there. He is physically almost perfect for the college dean he is playing, and she plays just a bit on the young side as his wife.
There is an ensemble of five who play various roles, which includes Richard Brown, Ashley Cronkhite, Makenna Hermann, Camille Norman and Jim Wolfe, who provide strong supporting voices.
Director/choreographer Kelly Burnette has not blocked the show imaginatively. Each couple is most often placed in their own section of the stage, Lizzie and Danny stage left, the Sakarians center stage, and the McNallys stage right, except when one of the couples is in the only bed, which is center stage, It keeps the couples clear in our minds, but provides no additional interest. Movement is limited, perhaps because of limited dancing talents of her cast, but I wonder if it isn't because so much focus is on mastering the musical end of things that there is little left for other matters.
William Coleman is credited as musical director which in this case I believe mostly involves teaching the cast their music and how to stay with the tracks. Being present just to give a few cues and keep ensembles from going off the rails might have been a plus. Costumes are by Tara Cole, the very limited set design is by Ralph Nurmela. Production values in recent productions at Kiwanis Theatre have shown a big step forward from previous seasons, but this production reverts back to the primitive, far from the best seen here. Lighting design using limited resources is by Patrick Bedell and is effective.
I am glad to see Baby being presented in this area. While far from a perfect musical, it is one with a great score and offers much to hold my interest. Unfortunately, serious mis-judgements were made involving this production, and the result is less than it might have been.
Manatee Players presents Baby through March 18, 2018, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.