As I was preparing for this review and investigating this show, I came across what turned out to be a very apt description of BABES IN ARMS from Mr. Aubrey Berg, the Chair of the Musical Theater Department at the University of Cincinnati-Conservatory of Music. Succinctly stated, it referred to their theatrical intent to stage this show “in all its unwieldy splendor.” BABES IN ARMS has never really been quite what people have expected from conventional musical theater. And … using that as a starting point, the Narberth Community Theatre production primarily surprised and delighted throughout the evening.
The first thing that strikes you as you read the production program is a familiarity with so many of the songs. My Funny Valentine, Where or When, Johnny One Note and The Lady is a Tramp lead a wonderful trip down memory lane for those either who remember the songs from having seen this show or who better remember them as recording album favorites by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand. A live orchestra of 20+ musicians led by the talented Raquel Garcia were more than up to the task of providing the music required be it background divertimento or accompaniment for the rousing chorus numbers. Maybe Rodgers & Hart got a little crazy with extending The Lady is a Tramp into a lengthy 10 stanzas while the staging didn’t help with an exit and then a return for another 2 stanzas. Gotta question ‘why?’ on that one and why the director, Robert Marsch, felt it had value. Fortunately, the majority of Mr. Marsch’s choices nicely supported this production.
The plot is simple on the surface, but the situations created and socio-political commentary pronounced by the characters both disconcert and amuse the viewer. BABES IN ARMS is not the straight ahead “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” type of production. That premise is merely used to supplement a complex (ok, unwieldy) structure with everything from vaudeville resurrectionism, situations of obvious racism, and an on/off relationship with communism to the last minute introduction of a Lindbergh-esque character arriving in Act II to save the day! Caricature is hard to avoid when one is portraying these types of people. The specialty characters walked a thin line which they maintained throughout most of the production. Nick Edelman (as Lee Calhoun) sometimes left behind the Southern gentlemen persona in favor of the Northern push to get laughs but Mr. Edelman was easily strong and forceful when it was required.
Just to get it out of the way so that other production aspects can be addressed, sound was a large problem. The body mikes and sound levels were not balanced, and many times the audience was jarred by the squeal and/or squawk of the amplified sound. Continual adjustments appeared to be made throughout the night because at times the sound was supportive in the best possible way. Other times it got IN the way.
The voices and diction of the cast were crisp letting the clever and tongue-twisting music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hart come through loud and clear. Mark Thompson (as Valentine LaMar) and Brenda Pretko (as Billie Smith) really understood the concept of “selling a song” and their ballads were heartfelt. The tap dancing by Jared Smith and Danny Venini (as the deQuincy brothers) was exceptional. In fact the entire choreography was well within the talents of those dancing. Diane Hodgkiss was very successful in using the talents of the cast she was given and showcasing their capabilities within the structure of the production.
The encompassing set kept us localized in the town of Seaport, Long Island, by bookending the stage with the LaMar farmhouse and the Calhoun mansion. The stage proper then provided a very useable backdrop for the other activities required by the script. I saw many successes with costuming on a budget including the matching outfits used for several numbers. Christine Jackson’s costume designs and Jacqueline M. Laskin’s props kept us in the 1930s.
Overall, BABES IN ARMS at NCT was an entertaining musical walk down memory lane. Maybe more understanding of the political satire would have enabled some of the jokes to work better, but the overall sense of time and place came through. BABES IN ARMS is a lovely evening of entertainment. Go and sing along (to yourself, of course!!).
BABES IN ARMS
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Book by Rodgers and Hart
Directed by Robert Marsch
November 5 – 20, 2010
Narberth Community Theatre
206 Price Avenue
Narberth, PA 19072