Goodspeed’s second time around with Rodgers & Hart’s “Babes in Arms” ends with a smashingly danced finale that sends the audience out on a high. What comes before isn’t always as exhilarating, however. The cast of young performers (and two adults) is apt enough for a show about teen children of vaudevillians left behind when their parents go on tour during the Depression. But though the spirited kids can dance up a storm, their singing leaves much to be desired. Projection is a persistent problem, as is a lack of ability to deliver Hart’s sophistication. It’s not until well into act two, when grumpy Sheriff Lancaster (Kenneth Kantor) admits he’s a closet performer and lets loose with a soaring “With a Song in My Heart” and then follows it with an even more generous rendition of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” that Rodgers & Hart are fully given their due.
The singing problem is evident from the first song, “Where or When,” in which Bradford Anderson as Valentine and Rena Strober as Billie Smith can be heard only intermittently. True, the brassy little pit band is aggressive, but it can’t be expected to play softly every time someone sings. It is odd that Goodspeed, which sometimes uses amplification, has not chosen to do so here, particularly since five more songs, including “Blue Moon” and the aforementioned “Most Beautiful Girl,” have been added to the original score.
Fortunately the youngsters (some may look younger than they are, of course) are a likable bunch, and they can sure dance. Black tapper Jared Grimes, for instance, is a real windmill (the 1937 original featured the Nicholas Brothers). Race is part of the musical’s plot: The sheriff stops the kids from putting their show on in the local theater because there’s a ban on black and white performers onstage together.
In his new book, Joe DiPietro has stuck to the basic plot of the original book, but has done away with the ending. In the original, the kids’ show is a financial failure and they’re saved by a famous aviator making a forced landing on the work farm. Here the show — a purposely “amateurish” one — is the finale.
Alas, the let’s-put-on-a-show notion has become a cliche over the years, and DiPietro has brought nothing fresh to it. Lame gags, many of them Goodspeed in-jokes, do not help; nor do endless references to musicals including “Sweeney Todd,” “Passion,” “Gypsy,” “Annie,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “The Sound of Music.” DiPietro also mentions Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and names the two kids who compose the show-in-a-barn’s score Larry (Hart) and Dick (Rodgers). It’s all a bit forced.
With a few elisions, the characters are mostly the same, including the tricky one of Baby Rose, a has-been child movie star who has been 12 forever. Described as “Shirley Temple in an opium den” and dressed and wigged as a Temple clone, she’s never as funny as she’s apparently meant to be, though Leslie Kritzer gives the role her best shot.
One new character is Mabel, the world’s oldest chorus girl, who’s brought in to direct the show. She’s the familiar tough, old-broad type, and is played that way by Marie Lillo, who gets to sing “The Lady Is a Tramp,” originally sung by the teen Billie Smith character. Lillo enjoys herself thoroughly, but doesn’t capture the sophistication built into this great song. Thank goodness for Kantor, a big man with a real singer’s voice.
Howard C. Jones’ rough-hewn wooden barn setting with sliding walls helps keep the show moving, as does Greg Ganakas’ direction, though his contribution is not in the same class as his previous work on Goodspeed’s “Brigadoon” and “George M!” Randy Skinner’s choreography plays up the eager, leggy enthusiasm of the young cast (there’s no Balanchine ballet as there was in the original). Perky as it is, the production just doesn’t do justice to its raison d’etre: Rodgers & Hart.