Fed up with rock ‘n’ roll jukebox tuners? Cheri Steinkellner (“Sister Act”) has ransacked the old 78s beneath her Victrola to weave two dozen royalty-free song hits into “Hello! My Baby,” a Tin Pan Alley yarn with a notably preposterous and negligible narrative even by musical comedy’s laxest standards. It’s all extremely genial, well-sung and well-danced, but life beyond this Rubicon Theater premiere (and a May move to Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theater) is going to require more than one transfusion for the anemic storytelling.
Front and center we get a standard-issue Rooney and Garland in Mickey McKee (Ciaran McCarthy) and Nelly Gold (Evie Hutton), Lower East Side composer wannabes who quarrel their way to romance while cranking out toe-tappers like “Play a Simple Melody” (actually a hit for the young Irving Berlin), and “Alice Blue Gown” from Tierney and McCarthy’s 1919 “Irene.”
Probably there’s no harm done in scrambling the provenance of public domain song hits, except perhaps to the pride of the songwriters’ heirs. (Though as fast and loose as the show plays with the material, claims of “respect” for the original tunesmiths ring somewhat hollow.)
Steinkellner’s compulsive scavenger hunt yields, also from “Irene,” a bland second-couple romance across both sides of the tracks. From “Hairspray” comes a zoftig, expendable second second-couple impersonated by Kristine Zbornik and George Wendt. A little “Yentl” action is even brought in by having Nelly, for reasons as hard to explain as to justify, masquerade as “Ned O’Reilly,” though the hoped-for hilarity never materializes.
Nothing in the plot makes any sense, and with its flaccid, menace-free villains it’s notably lacking in tension. Helmer Brian McDonald wisely keeps the action fast, brash and wink-wink, though Steinkellner insists on interjecting a serious conscience to sometimes embarrassing results. One wonders what Jane Addams and Jacob Riis would make of “Ain’t We Got Fun,” as joyful tenement dwellers celebrate their rat-infested filth.
Say what you will, the celebration at least is handsome in Marcy Froehlich’s not-overstated period costumes. And while numbers may be empty – an unnecessary competition over “Ja-Da,” for instance – choreographer Lee Martino always succeeds in finding build, moment and excitement in them.
The cast is uniformly excellent musically, though McCarthy, Hutton and Zbornik need to ratchet down their acting so as not to wear out their welcome within five minutes. Those with restraint come off best: Wendt and Jordan Kai Burnett are quietly persuasive, while blueblood Will Sevedge has an easy way with a quip and shares with elegant sister Alice (Lilli Babb) a mellow way with a tune.