A friend recently forwarded me a very funny article from The Onion entitled "Hey Everybody, Let's Put On an Avant-Garde Show!" where thirteen-year-old Mickey exhorts his chums to band together to stop mean old Banker Mudge from tearing down the clubhouse. Tap-dancers can easily be turned into shrouded wraiths, he suggests, and "golden-haired Rosalie" would be perfect to play the slovenly mother-whore of a giant fetus that becomes king of an obscure Eastern European nation. It's a tremendously witty satire on the "backyard musicals" from the '30s and '40s starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It also came right on time: I got the e-mail the day before seeing the Willows' production of Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms, the mother of all musicals featuring perky youth standing defiantly against grumpy old people.
Babes has an interesting history. When it was originally staged in 1937, response was lukewarm. The critics liked it, but the box office was middling -- perhaps because, as Variety suggested at the time, there was "no nudity, showgirls, plush, or gold plate." Babes struggled along for a few months, barely breaking even, and then a miracle occurred: Just about every other musical on Broadway closed simultaneously. Suddenly Babes was making bank, and it ran for nearly 300 performances. A couple years later, the Busby Berkeley-directed film version with Mickey and Judy would begin a series of films -- Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, and Girl Crazy -- that would immortalize the line, "Let's get the kids together and put on a show!"
Several Babes songs, including "The Lady is a Tramp" and "My Funny Valentine," stayed lodged in the American pop repertoire long after the Broadway show disappeared. Their popularity prompted two updates of Hart's original story, one in 1959 by George Oppenheimer and another in 1998 by playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation). If you've seen Babes anytime recently, it was probably the Guare version, which comfortably outsells the other two at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatre Library. At the core of this is an interesting mystery: What was the original show like? While Guare's adaptation is certainly bouncy and smart, there are bits that clunk, and without examining all three it's hard to tell where the weaknesses originate.
Like most musicals of the time, the basic story, like that of many '30s musicals, might seem contrived to a modern audience: A group of kids in a small New Jersey town are left alone when their vaudevillian parents hit the road to make some money. The sheriff comes round to inform the teens they're being sent off to a work farm, so they'll stay out of trouble. The kids, led by Val LaMar and his feisty new girl Billie, band together to create a musical revue to raise money so they don't have to go. Internal squabbles hamstring the starry-eyed kids: The boys fight over the girls, the group can't decide on a form of government, and the rich Southern kid bankrolling the production refuses to give any money if the two "colored" kids get to be in the show. Eventually, the sheriff shuts down the show and ships off the group. That's the first act; while it's pretty silly, the next act is downright absurd. The sheriff relents and throws the kids a party in the old red barn. They get an unexpected visitor in the form of a French aviator blown off course, a large sum of money more or less falls from the sky, and the kids are saved from going back to the evil old work farm, where they were getting (gasp) calluses.
There's all kinds of stuff happening here around issues of race, class, and gender, unusual for a fluffy '30s musical. Rodgers and Hart, by all accounts, wanted to do something a little chewier than rhyming "moon" with "June." Unfortunately, the Willows production touches these issues in a most cursory way. For example, did they really need to keep the bit where one of the black brothers steals a chicken? 42nd Street Moon managed just fine without it in its recent version; I was stunned when it came up at the Willows. On top of that, the show is presented without the slightest hint of irony or acknowledgment of the fact that we've all heard about kids putting on a show. Seriously, every time the cast yelled, "[We'll do it in] the old red barn!" I thought my teeth were going to fall out. Loved the odd yet witty lyrics -- where else would I find the rhyme, "I'd trade your famous deer and antelope/ for a tall beer and a cantaloupe" -- thought the interpretation of the book fell short, and wondered if the score was canned.
My grouchy postmodern misgivings about French airmen, chicken-stealing, and old red barns aside, there's no denying that director Andrew Holtz found himself an exceptional young cast. Leads Patrick Leveque as Val and Virginia Wilcox as Billie are well-matched. Wilcox gets the honor of performing the show's best-known songs; her rendition of "The Lady Is a Tramp" in particular is lovely and clear. Leveque's Val is suitably eager if inexperienced, as suits a young man taken with every philosopher he encounters. Add Babes to the very short list of musicals that manages to mention Schopenhauer, sharing company with Young Zombies in Love. Some of the most exciting performances are turned in by Kerry Wininger as washed-up child star Baby Rose, who breezes through town for no apparent reason and decides to help the kids out. Her "Way Out West (on West End Avenue)," performed in a bright white Shirley Temple wig, full crinolines, and cowboy hat, is a stitch.
Also exceptional are Gus (Jake Manabat) and Dolores (Shawna Darling), the quarreling ex-lovers, in their song-and-dance routines -- especially "I Wish I Were in Love Again" -- although Manabat could stand to work on his volume. Dance Captain Javier Muñoz has a great time with "Peter's Journey," one of the first known dream sequences to be staged as a ballet, and fifteen-year-old Lennie Pezhman Olinga (who has been dancing since he was three) is riveting as Ivor deQuincy when he breaks into a tap routine. It's wonderful to see such a talented group of young performers (several of the cast members are still in high school) getting to show their stuff; they're the strongest elements in an otherwise uneven production that doesn't manage to balance last century's escapism with this one's jaded cool.
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