Babes in Arms
Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, a 1937 “let’s put on a show” musical, will no doubt get your foot tapping to classic numbers, such as “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “The Lady is a Tramp”. But despite the energy and enthusiasm of the cast, the plot plods. Weak and cheesy story-line aside: an easy-to-watch, entertaining show! At the Union Theatre.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Babes in Arms is an old-school musical comedy that focuses on a rundown theatre in Cape Cod. Cold-hearted and penny-pinching owner, Seymour Fleming (Paddy Crawley), clearly values monetary gain over artistic integrity and programmes Lee Calhoun’s (Stuart Pattenden) The Deep North. The play turns out to be as insufferable as the playwright is. While in rehearsal, a young group of exploited apprentices – the ‘kids’ – are determined to stage their own production, in order to satisfy their longing for the limelight and to help the indebted co-owner Bunny Byron (Jenny Perry). The revue is the only thing that can save the theatre! However, Fleming throws a spanner in the works when he threatens to cancel the revue in order for Calhoun’s monstrosity to run an additional week. Cue an abundance of heartfelt sighs.
As you’d expect there are various subplots and love triangles. The leader of the revue, Valentine (James Lacey), falls for glamorous Jennifer Owen (Carly Thoms), the lead in The Deep North – and avoiding the eye of her stage-school-esque mother Phyllis Owen (Pip Mayo), the couple dilly-daddle behind closed [stage] doors. Revue starlet, Susie (Catriona Mackenzie), is crazy about Val and jealous of the reciprocated romance between the two. All the while, revue co-stars Terry (Anna McGarahan) and Gus’ (Ben Redfern) love-hate relationship threatens to implode the pair, not helped by Terry’s strange ambition to sell her body. (Ah hem, yes, moving on…)
Embracing Babes in Arms for what it – essentially a cheesy, mildly-amusing, “let’s put on a show” musical – this is a jolly, upbeat production, but there are flaws that dilute its strengths. Despite the energy and enthusiasm of the cast, the plot plods. The weak storyline seems to be engineered simply to introduce the songs – of which there are some classics, granted. But some lines are simply song cues and are delivered accordingly.
The flamboyant, larger-than-life characters and showy theatrical dialogue is perhaps to blame for the prominence of one-dimensional caricatures. The acting is generally weak and lines are often delivered without thought or connection to the text. I found myself questioning the physicality of Jennifer (Thoms). As a glamorous actress on the cusp of stardom (I’m referring to Jennifer), I would have expected better posture and composure. The relationship that stiltedly blossoms (there’s a paradox!) between Jennifer (Thoms) and Valentine (Lacey) resonates as untrue. The love they feel for one another is unfounded and the relationship dynamic is under-developed. Valentine is supposed to be dazzled by Jennifer and sexually drawn to Susie, and yet we witness no element of his lust. At one point Valentine kisses Susie and the action fails to demonstrate any motive. I’m left doubting the emotional bond between the characters.
However, certain performances are stronger than others. In particular, Mackenzie effortlessly transfers emotion and truth into her subtle and touching performance as the optimistically devoted Susie. “My Funny Valentine” is beautifully performed, and leaves me with goosebumps. Due to a striking sense of stage presence, Perry’s depiction of the down-trodden yet feisty Bunny is laden with pizzazz and is highly watchable.
The real saving grace of the musical is the fun choreography by Lizzie Gee and singing/dancing ability of the talented cast. The jazzy tap-dancing ensembles demand and get the audience’s rapt attention. The musical numbers are well executed, and my foot was tapping on more than one occasion, especially during “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “The Lady is a Tramp” (although I found the backing performers a little static). The eighteen-strong cast have stunning voices and their harmonies are pitch-perfect. The band consisting of Jack Lowe (bass), Diogo Carvelho (drums) and MD Sam Cable deserve full credit. The sound is cleverly engineered and the musicians do not swamp the singers.
Director David Ball directs with an ear for the play’s humour and there are some funny moments; I especially enjoyed the not-so-subtle reference to the casting couch and Phyllis’ (Mayo) insane blinking habits, no doubt a side-effect of her ever-increasing blood pressure. To conclude, the story isn’t gripping but it is an easy-to-watch, entertaining and amusing show nevertheless.