You were an accident,” David Greenspan blithely informs one of his children during a snicker-worthy moment in “Babes in Toyland.” A happy accident, a better mother (he’s in drag) might have amended, like much of this show. Defiantly rudderless script pulls too many mystifying gags from the 1903 operetta, so most of the tuner’s appeal comes from the cast’s screwball antics. Greenspan, recently an even meaner ma in “Coraline,” is predictably good, but the show gets a major boost from strong perfs by Sofia Jean Gomez as the male lead (drag again) and Laura von Holt as her paramour.
Low humor saves high concept over and over again in this production, mostly because co-helmer/adapter Michael Levinton’s love for his material outstrips his facility for expressing it on the page. But he fares much better on stage as the show’s multi-mustachioed antagonist Barnaby, a guy whose facial hair can’t decide what form it wants to take. Is this a dumb joke? Unquestionably. Is it a funny one? Yes.
While various fairy-tale denizens (Mother Goose, Little Jack Horner, Miss Muffet and others) lay out the love-conquers-most story for us, Levinton and directing partner Jose Zayas somehow manage to keep the actors at roughly the same level of self-conscious wackiness for the entire show. While any in-jokiness is arguably too much in the post-“Urinetown” theater, that accomplishment is still fairly impressive. Everybody does his or her own slightly shticky thing, but they do it well and in concert.
Gomez gets the most mileage out of this kind of freedom, playing her adorable urchin Alan as a guileless tyke at one moment, and then lapsing into a very funny (and still childlike) worldliness in another. At one point, surprised and afraid, Alan hides behind one of the Ohio Theater’s support pillars as the show’s villains do something frightening. “Fuuuuuuuck,” he says softly, still sounding about 12.
Tuner’s bit players frequently shine, as well — Eliza Bent swerves onto the stage just before the show ends as Svetlana, Qveen of Chrrristmas, a character who benefits immeasurably from the Ukrainian hooker vibe Bent gives her.
Tech package is impeccable, maybe even incongruously so given that the show wears its low-rent credentials so proudly (the words “Musical Extravaganza” on the program are struck through and replaced with “Recession Spectacular”). Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are notably good, synching up with the cheapo aesthetic and still making the actors look good (or hilariously bad, as the occasion requires). Jason Simms’ storybook-illustration sets are lovely.
Music is all appropriated from the original score, and performed dutifully, though without much sense of purpose.
Levinton’s company, the Little Lord Fauntleroys, exclusively performs offbeat revivals. One can imagine a fun commedia production with these guys. But the Fauntleroys’ directing and writing sensibilities don’t even remotely mesh with the dramaturgy of the fairy tale they’ve picked — it’s a testament to the performances that “Babes” still has enough going for it to merit a look. To paraphrase another adapter of Victor Herbert’s 106-year-old show, it’s another fine mess, but worth getting into.