Paper Mill Playhouse
Millburn, NJ - April 2004
Review by John Kenrick
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are by Jerry Dalia.)
If you want to see the richest, most satisfying and downright giddy musical revival of the year, you won't find it on Broadway -- it's in Millburn, New Jersey, where Paper Mill has just unveiled its sensational 20th anniversary production of that underrated 1984 masterpiece, Baby. If you don't know this show, it is high time you made its acquaintance.
Yes, Baby is a masterpiece. David Shire's music soars, Richard Maltby, Jr.'s lyrics are superbly crafted, and Sybille Pearson's book is one of the strongest original libretti ever written for Broadway. The central concept is simple. At an American college, three couples face pregnancies -- unmarried juniors, married 20-something athletics coaches, and a 40-something couple that has just sent their kids off to college. We follow them through nine months that lead to lots of laughs, some truthful tears, and the birth of just one child. This is solid gold entertaiment from start ot finish, filled with wit, melody, and heart.
So why is Baby underrated? The original Broadway staging bears part of the blame. A glorious cast was hampered by poorly blocked ensemble scenes and noisy electrified curtains in lieu of sets. Worse yet, Baby suffered from an accident of timing. Debuting in the same season as Sunday in the Park With George, The Rink and La Cage Aux Folles, it was never able to win the attention -- or the Tonys -- it deserved. There were some fine regional and amateur productions, but then Baby pretty much faded from view. All that was left was a delicious cast recording, and the memories Baby's devoted fans (including yours truly) have held on to.
Paper Mill's new staging of Baby more than lives up to those memories, proving that this is that rarest of creations -- a musical set in its own time that remains vital twenty years later. Kudos go to director-choreographer Mark S. Hoebee for giving this complex piece a , clear, dynamic focus that easily outshines the original Broadway approach. Every move is character-perfect, the choreography fits in so naturally you almost don't realize anyone is dancing, and the overall effect leaves an audience with that wonderful glow one gets from a first class production of a truly wonderful musical. Instead of handing great American musicals (new or old) to clueless British directors, Broadway producers would do far better by calling on Hoebee.
Michael Anania's uncharacteristically minimalist set is exactly right, as is F. Mitchell Dana's inventive lighting. When they join forces, a splash of pattered light on a simple flat becomes one of those awful modern paintings that haunt doctor's offices -- and three couples can inhabit the same stage without causing any hint of confusion. Better still, one character can step into infinity -- and it all makes perfect, eye thrilling sense. Musical director Eugene Gwozdz kept everything running at a perfect pace.
Musical theatre buffs have long since elevated some of Baby's original cast performances semi-deified status -- so its a real joy to report that this cast will delight anyone who knows and loves this show -- and will easily blow away anyone hearing the score for the first time. There have been some effective changes made to the book, and the female leads get a nifty additional trio -- "End of Summer." All the numbers from the original score are in place, and in wonderful hands.
Chad Kimball is a disarming bundle of pop music charm as Danny, the teenage musician who actually wants to be a father, and Moeisha McGill is a vocal powerhouse as his beloved Lizzie -- her rendition of "Our Story Goes On" rocked the house, a dazzling tour de force. (And their duets of "What Could Be Better" and "Two People In Love" are special treats!)
As Nick, the butch track coach who finds his sperm count wanting, Norm Lewis is a striking combination of buff good looks and a velvety rich baritone -- what a knockout voice! La Chanze, a goddess in any musical theatre lover's pantheon, is luscious as Nick's wife Pam, the former tomboy who thinks she needs motherhood to prove her femininity. I only wish she had more to sing -- but then, I always wish La Chanze had more to sing.
Three people do stand out from this uniformly superior cast -- each a longtime favorite of this critic, and each in top form. Lenny Wolpe damn near stops the show as a doctor trying to impart life-changing news while contending with a new (and uncooperative) sets of contact lenses -- this is what can happen when a master comedian is in the house. The always delightful (and still disarmingly handsome) Michael Rupert is irresistible as the professor who finds himself elated at the prospect of late parenthood -- "Easier to Love" may have been a minor number in the past, but not when Rupert opens the heart of it. And the ravishing Carolee Carmello is a revelation as his wife, who is anything but elated at having a child who will be 20 when she herself is 60. Carmello's rendition of "Patterns" is quietly shattering -- a clinic in musical theatre performance.
Every member of the ensemble is well cast, so the group numbers live up to their full show-stopping potential. "The Fatherhood Blues" is a knockout tribute to macho paternal pride, and the uproarious "Ladies Singin' Their Song" still sets women howling with recognition. Either of these numbers would be the highlight of any new musical today -- in fact, the same can be said of almost every song in this show.
Frankly, none of the new productions on Broadway this season offers anything like the heart-healing sense of joy that Paper Mill's Baby (you should pardon the expression) delivers. So be warned! Anyone who sees Baby is liable to fall in love -- with the characters, the cast, and the show. I tell you from the heart, musical theatre does not get any better than this!
Baby ended its limited run on May 9, 2004