“You Made Me Love You” “Ballin’ The Jack” “I Don’t Care” “If You Were The Only Girl” “Some Of These Days”

Tin Pan Alley circa the 1910s comes to singing/dancing life in Cheri Steinkellner’s World Premiere musical Hello! My Baby, and though its book could use some tweaking to give the tale a more contemporary sensibility, the tuneful confection proves a terrific showcase for its talented cast under Brian McDonald’s spirited direction.

Like Mamma Mia!, All Shook Up, and Rock Of Ages before it, Hello! My Baby takes a couple dozen recognizable song hits (in this case a bunch of late 19th/early 20th Century ditties in the public domain) and concocts a more-or-less original plotline to string them together.

Steinkellner’s hero is Irish-American 20something Mickey McKee (Ciarán McCarthy), a Tin Pan Alley “song plugger” whose job it is to promote and help sell new sheet music on the streets of New York. (Recall that these were the days before every household had its own “gramophone” to play 78 rpm discs.) Though Mickey’s dream is to write his own hit tunes, his bosses Bert and Ethel Coots (George Wendt and Kristine Zbornik) are adamant: “Song writers write and song pluggers plug.”

 Jewish factory worker Nelly Gold (Evie Hutton) has a similar dream, but the perky, pretty lass has the added burden of her sex going against her. Nelly’s solution to this dilemma is one that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare. She hides her hair under a hat, dons male garb, redubs herself Ned O’Reilly, and before long is giving Mickey a run for his money as a song plugger to be reckoned with.

Adding a Rich Man Poor Man edge to Hello! My Baby is slum landlord Stanford Tierney (George Ball), a moneyed gent who plans to bulldoze Nelly’s neighborhood with the help of his obedient son Junior (Will Sevedge), who naively assumes that this redevelopment will somehow help the evicted residents improve their living accomodations.  Also, thanks to Tierney Sr., there’s even a smidgen of anti-Semitism to season the mix.

  It doesn’t take long for a number of romantic attractions to blossom.  Mickey falls for Nelly even as he competes with her alter ego for top banana song-plugging status, Junior loses his head over Nelly’s sister Frances (Jordan Kai Burnett), and Junior’s younger sis Alice (Lili Babb) gets the hots for Ned in gender-bending Shakespearean fashion.

Meanwhile, gangster Johnny Giovanni (Harley Jay) and his Gang Of Two (Zach Johnson as Kid Vicious and Erick Paul as Dickie The Duck) prowl the neighborhood collecting protection money from the financially beleaguered tenants, though since this is a musical, the trio are around mostly to provide comic relief. (Johnny instructs cohorts to “Walk this way,” and they do.)

 As it stands now, Hello! My Baby is likely to have its greatest appeal among those familiar with its many hit tunes of a bygone era, the post-retirement set who grew up watching MGM musicals set in the early 20th Century. It will be a harder sell for those who find these Golden Oldies more quaint than catchy, particularly since Steinkellner’s book doesn’t yet have enough of the kind of 21st Century sensibility that makes All Shook Up’s look back at the 1950s feel fresh and new. Steinkellner would do well to check out its clever book by Joe DiPietro, or even to enlist DiPietro’s help for a bit of script-doctoring, particularly in Hello! My Baby’s old-fashioned first act. Act Two does fare considerably better, with clever lines about fallen “knickers” and wink-wink remarks like one character’s joyous “This is America where everything is possible!” when it seems for a brief while that Mickey and Ned may be in love.  Also on the more positive side, scenes which have both Nelly and Ned needing to be at the same highbrow shindig (and the quick costume changes this requires) and a couple of rapid-fire exchanges where it seems until the punch line that Mickey has things figured out are keepers.

On the other hand, the final reveal still needs work, as it doesn’t make the most of Mickey’s being serenaded by someone he supposes to be another man, or make clear enough the reasons why he suddenly puts two and two together and comes up with Cross-Dresser, when for the past two hours he’s been utterly clueless.

 Fortunately for all concerned, despite a book that still needs work and songs that may not resonate with the under-60 set, Hello! My Baby benefits from a) Brian McDonald’s sparkling direction, b) a castfull of the most talented triple-threats in town, c) snappy choreography by the one-and-only Lee Martino, d) a tuneful three-piece band, and e) a pretty darn dazzling design package.

Rising stars McCarthy and Hutton make for a positively irresistible pair of romantic leads. Jay proves a 21st Century Ray Bolger with his charismatic, rubber-torsoed turn as Johnny, backed by the amusing Mutt & Jeff comedy team of Johnson and Paul. Burnett makes for a lovely Frances opposite a particularly golden-throated Sevedge. Wendt is his inimitable Cheers self as Bert, teamed with the scene-stealing Zbornik. Babb shows off a sweet soprano as Alice, Jacob Mattison and Tad Murroughs provide plenty of pep as Coots brothers Artie and Albie, and McKenna Kylie Tedrick is a charmer as youngest Gold sister Violet. Ball makes for a suitably imperious millionaire despite some line stumbling on Opening Night. Completing the stellar ensemble are triple-threats Rich Hoag, Ixchel Lopez (Marie), dance captain Jeremy Lucas, Allison Paraiso, Teya Patt, Neil Starkenberg, Lauryn Tillery, and Carly Wielstein.

 A half dozen or so Martino-choreographed production numbers are among Hello! My Baby’s strongest elements, from the “Plugger’s Prologue” with its medley of a dozen Tin Pan Alley smashes to the Act Two title song opener, to “Ain’t We Got Fun,” which features some clever new lyrics about the supposed “delights” of slum living.  (More lyric rewrites of this type would be worth considering.)

Musical director Lloyd Cooper and associate musical director/copyist Brian P. Kennedy make the very most of the cast’s vocal gifts, with Kennedy on piano, James Webb on bass, and Mike Deutsch on percussion performing Craig Safan’s musical arrangements and orchestrations. (Additional arrangements and orchestrations are by Kennedy and Steven Cahill.)

Thomas S. Giamario’s scenic design is a wonder of imagination and ingenuity as it transforms itself quite magically from Tin Pan Alley and Delancy Street exteriors to Gold’s Music Hall and Beekman Club interiors, decorated to perfection by prop designer/set dresser T. Theresa Scarano and lit with abundant panache by Jeremy Pivnick. Marcy Froehlich has designed dozens upon dozens of splendid period outfits, while sound designer Jonathan Burke insures that Hello! My Baby sounds as good as it looks.

Linda M. Tross is production stage manager, Kathleen J. Parsons assistant stage manager, Christina M. Burck production manager/producer, and David King technical director.

No theatrical genre takes longer to reach its final incarnation than the Broadway musical, development often taking five to seven years … or more … in order to become New York-ready. Hello! My Baby is on the right track despite the need for script revision to make it more younger-audience-friendly. Even in its not quite finished state, Steinkellner’s “New-Fashioned Musical Comedy” offers much to delight an audience.

Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.

–Steven Stanley
March 24, 2012
Photos: Daniel G. Lam

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