Here’s a thought for schools considering yet another production of Grease, Bye Bye Birdie, or High School Musical. How about having a go at the quintessential “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” show, Rodgers & Hart’s Babes In Arms, and not the “sanitized, de-politicized rewrite” that debuted in 1959 but the 1937 original, political incorrectness be damned. As anyone attending Sunday’s one-night-only Concert Staged Reading at Musical Theatre West can tell you, there’s not a funnier, dancier, or more gorgeously tuneful show for up-and-coming musical theater majors to show off their triple-threat talents than Babes In Arms 1.0.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart themselves wrote the book, one that pits a local lawmaker (Tom Shelton as Sheriff Reynolds) against a spunky, Nietzsche-espousing teen (Jacob Haren as Valentine LaMar) who balks at the idea of being sent along with his buddies to a work farm (they had those back in the 1930s) while their parents are off trying to Bring Back Vaudeville over the summer.
In addition to comely hitchhiker Billie Smith (Heather Lundstedt), new in Val’s life even though it seems to both as if they’ve “stood and talked like this before” and “looked at each other in the same way then” though neither can remember “Where Or When,” there’s Val’s best friend Marshall (Benjamin Gibson), Sheriff Reynolds’ boy-crazy daughter Dolores (Kristen Lamoureux) and her handsome ex Gus (Michael Starr), who can’t help missing “the broken dates, the endless waits, the lovely loving and the hateful hates,” grown-up child star Baby Rose (Teya Patt), self-delared communist Peter (Jeffrey Scott Parsons), and a couple of African-American siblings (Christopher James Culberson and Annie Hinskton as Irving and Emmaline de Quincy), the latter pair making Babes In Arms that rarity among pre-Civil Rights Movement shows—an honest-to-goodness racially integrated musical.
Not only that, but its book writers dare to point a finger at racial prejudice in the person of bigoted Southern scion Lee Calhoun (Emerson Boatwright), who’s none too happy about a) his younger brother Beauregard (Austin Kelly) palling around with Emmaline and b) the “colored” duo’s scheduled appearance alongside white performers in the show Val and his buddies—who also include Mildred (Emily Dauwalder) and Frederick (Dylan Pass)—have come up with as an alternative to the dreaded work farm.
Creativity and artistic freedom may have been crippled in Golden Era Hollywood by the Motion Picture Production Code, but Broadway Circa 1937 was a different story, with Rodgers & Hart taking advantage of the more laissez-faire Great White Way to feature a communist, a racist, and a nubile nympho amongst Babes In Arms’ cast of characters.
Yes, Rodgers & Hart’s period piece can come across as dated and its characters two-dimensional, but when Val bursts out with “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” (to audience cheers) followed by an even more enthusiastic “IN A BARN!!” (to even louder cheers), I defy anyone not to shriek with joy.
It helps that perhaps no other Rodgers & Hart musical has more R&H hits in it than Babes In Arms (and that’s without an iota of latter-day padding). “Babes In Arms.” “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” “Johnny One Note” “The Lady Is A Tramp.” “My Funny Valentine” (Who knew its title originally referred to a man named Valentine?) “Where Or When.” They’re all in the original Babes In Arms, and since even the show’s lesser-known ditties (“Way Out West,” “Imagine,” “All At Once,” and “You Are So Fair”) prove immediately catchy delights, the entirety adds up to as miraculous a score as the 1930s have to offer.
And speaking of miraculous, MTW’s Reiner Reading Series has followed the recent Steel Pier, quite possibly its danciest musical ever, with one almost as dancy, its tap numbers “I Wish I Were In Love Again” and “Light On Our Feet” and Act Two’s extended “Peter’s Journey” ballet choreographed (to perfection by Daniel A. Smith) and rehearsed in a mere twenty-five hours, though from the precision-perfect hoofing of Culberson, Hinskton, Lamoureux, Parsons, and Starr, you’d think choreographer and performers had been at it twenty-five days. (Did I mention that all five triple-threats sing and act as winningly as they dance?)
Under Michael Betts’ expert direction, each and every cast member strikes just the right notes (somewhere between earnest and tongue-in-cheek), from Haren to his exquisitely-voiced girl-next-door partner Lundstedt in a reprise of their Catch Me If You Can pairing at Moonlight Stages this past summer.
Among the youngsters, Boatwright, Dauwalder, Gibson, Kelly, and Pass provide tiptop support, as do adults Shelton and Gabriel Kalomas, the latter milking every deliciously Gallic moment of his cameo as French aviateur extraordinaire René Flambeau.
Last but not least is the divine Patt, whose grown-up Baby Rose not only still has those Shirley Temple dimples going for her but performs her two big numbers (“Way Out West” and “Johnny One Note”) with infectious Hollywood pizzazz.
David Catalan musical directs to perfection, conducting a Broadway-caliber (thanks to Los Angeles Musicians Collective) and size (thanks to a village-worth of donors) orchestra, each member doing glorious work from Overture to Curtain Calls.
Additional kudos are shared by sound engineer Julie Ferrin, technical director Benjamin Karasik, and Reading Series crew Alex Lombardo.
Reiner Reading Series producers Betts and David Lamoureux would surely want to add their own thanks to series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, with additional funding provided by Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, Kathy Baker Campbell, and Laura Killingsworth and nearly two dozen orchestra donors.
Next up on the Reiner Reading Series is How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and I for one can’t wait.
As for How To Succeed In Concert Staged Readings In Twenty-Five Hours With A Whole Lot Of Talent (And A Little Bit Of Luck), Sunday’s Babes In Arms proved precisely how it’s done.
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach
January 25, 2015