Babes in Arms, book by George Oppenheimer, based on the original by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Directed by E. Gray Simons, III. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I miss the kisses and I miss the bites."
Babes in Arms is one of those shows. You think you know it because you know the songs; theyíve been a part of your history your whole life. You know the movie well: Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, June Preisser and Douglas MacPhail with a little bit of Margaret Hamilton thrown in as well. The original show ran through most of 1937 for 289 performances and introduced such mega-hits as "Where or When," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady is a Tramp," and "Johnny One-Note." You know this show.
Itís plot is simple: kids left alone by their Vaudeville parents put on a show in a barn to keep themselves safe from the authorities who want to put them in state-run institutions. So there you are: kids in a barn putting on a show.
At the Berkshire Theatre Festival you literally have kids in a barn putting on a show about kids in a barn. The funny part here, however, is the show isnít the show you know and it isnít the show you donít know because the movie watered down the plot of the show and it isnít that show either any more. Now it has a new book, written in 1959 by film writer George Oppenheimer that changes the plot into kids apprenticed for the summer at a Cape Cod summer stock theater trying to put on a show in a barn. This second simplification robs the show of much of its initial punch and the daring qualities that limited its hit potential to just those 289 performances.
The original dealt with racial prejudice (the song "All Dark People" which you wonít hear and probably have never heard), psychic phenomena, child abuse in talented children, Hollywood pretensions and mis-matched talents surrounded by mis-placed concern. You also wonít hear a brilliant song lyric by Hart, "You Are So Fair." which gives to the final word in that title the opportunity to be heard in every possible meaning and nuance. Instead you will hear the interpolated song, "Youíre Nearer" which was written two years later for the film version of their College musical, "Too Many Girls."
But back to the kids in the barn playing kids in a barn. Valentine White has written a revue that his Cape Cod Summer Stock producer has promised to put on stage. However, with a child star returning to the stage in a straight, if boring, play on his docket he cancels his commitment to the "kids" leaving them without much hope for a summer experience in front of an audience. Eventually, with the help of a youngster names Susie Ward, they get to do their show and find a producer for Broadway. Happy ending. That is Oppenheimerís take on the show. The original show had Mitzi Green and Ray McDonald, Wynn Murray and Alfred Drake, Dan Dailey and Robert Rounseville, Grace McDonald and The Nicholas Brothers. There is a large and largely talented company of players at the tiny Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
Several performers are stand-outs. Samantha Richertís comic character, Bunny Byron, has some of the best songs and she delivers them with gusto. "Way Out West" in Act One establishes her brilliantly. In the second half she has two smart, witty songs, "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Johnny One Note" and she delivers on the promise of Act One.
Sarah Kauffmanís Susie is a bit pale for my taste and her voice is a tiny bit thin, but she is very effective in the song "Imagine" and in the romantic ballad "My Funny Valentine." She also makes a mock seduction scene into something hilarious, not easy to do these days. The man she loves, Valentine, is played in as pale a manner as his hair by Michael Brahce. He acts with sincerity and charm but his character doesnít really come across as worthwhile - this may be the Oppenheimer script giving the actor little to work with, but I am not certain.
Johanne Borge Kesten becomes a little bit repetitive in the comic role of Terry, who makes a habit of teasing and taunting the men in her life and Ben Rosenblatt, so charming a year ago on this stage in Candide as Doctor Pangloss, does a comic turn as Gus in this show and almost makes us like him.
There are marvelous bits throughout the show played by Hannah Hughes as a chorus girl and apprentice named Libby. John Tourtellotte plays a southern not-so-gentleman named Lee Calhoun. This is the character who, in the first version, was the bigot who ejects black people from the cast of the show in the barn by the kids in the barn. He is hateful in this version but never reaches the characterís earlier low points. Abby Armstrong plays the movieís least notable child star, Jennifer Owen. Her character as rewritten seemed to be formless, aimless and generally without any character traits at all. This, I am certain, is the writing and not the acting for Ms. Armstrong was a delightful personality on stage.
The 1959 book leaves the kids without an actual time period in which to play. This is reflected not just in the dialogue, but in the costumes for this production. Every costume was a gem but there was no definition: 1930 to 1960 seemed to pop up depending on which character you were looked at in any given moment. Costumes were designed by Jessica Risser-Milne. Also there were too few of them; Iím sure charactersí body odors were so rank by the time they finally got to change costumes for the show in the barn by the kids in the barn that those dresses and shirt were probably standing up on their own.
The lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson was delicious, even providing old fashioned footlights which again grounded the show in its period, whatever that might be, between 1939 and 1959. R. Michael Millerís set was what was called for and he didnít disappoint.
Rachael Plaineís choreography canít hold a candle to the original ballets by George Balanchine, and this company does itís best to make them look beautiful and/or funny as called for in the storylines. Simonsí direction of the piece provided a sense of fluidity, but a musical of this sort doesnít seem to be up his alley. Clear mistakes in comic timing and awkward stage pictures dominate the proceedings. There is little character development work in evidence and the caricatures that prevail are simplistic and not very compelling - again the writing may be at fault, but the director could overcome that somewhat better than is in evidence here.
Go for the music; ignore the book. Rodgers and Hart are back in the neighborhood and it is worthwhile hearing these songs played live, sung well and even danced - it prolongs the tunes. Donít expect the Babes you know, but go support the wonderful efforts of young people coming into a treacherous business who need all the love and appreciation they get out in that barn playing kids in a barn playing.
Babes in Arms plays through August 28 at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.