Babes In Arms

Rodgers & Hart
Babes in Arms – music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book by George Oppenheimer, based on the original by Rodgers & Hart, adapted by Martin Connor

Dan La Mar – Tony Jackson
Maizie La Mar – Catherine Terry
Valentine La Mar – Mark McGee
Gus Fielding – Matthew Hart
Dolores Reynolds – Kay Murphy
Marshal Blackstone – Philip Catchpole
Irving Stone – Ashley Day
Pinkie Johnson – Kylie Anne Cruikshanks
Nat McCabe – Joseph Prouse
Betty Palmer – Stephanie Bron
Peter Franklin – Charles Ruhrmund
Libby Drake – Michelle Francis
Ted Vanderpool – Darren J. Fawthrop
Mitzi Lee – Karen Aspinall
Bronson Jones – Gary Murphy
Davenir Smith – Graham Newell
Seymour Fleming – Rolf Saxon
Billie Edwards – Donna Steele
Lee Calhoun – Joseph Wicks
Baby Rose Owen – Sophia Ragavelas
Mrs Phyllis Owen – Lorna Luft
Steve Edwards / Jim Murray – Oliver Tydman

Chichester Festival Orchestra
Mark Warman

Martin Connor – Director
Bill Deamer – Choreographer
Hugh Durrant – Designer
Mark Jonathan – Lighting Designer
Matt Mackenzie – Sound Designer
Richard Balcombe – Orchestrator
Binnie Bowerman – Costume Supervisor

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 9 June, 2007
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex

How many times has a Broadway musical packed with hit numbers not appeared in London? The musical theatre is littered with such omissions, even from the pens of greats such as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. An outstanding case in point is “Babes in Arms” which Rodgers and Hart wrote in 1937. It ran a very respectable (for those days) 289 performances and featured among the young cast Alfred Drake, Dan Dailey and the black dance-duo The Nicholas Brothers, while George Balanchine was the choreographer. Moreover, it contained more hit songs than you could possibly shake a baton at, namely ‘Where or when’, ‘The lady is a tramp’, ‘My funny Valentine’, ‘Johnny One-Note’ and the title song, among many other less well-known numbers, that add up to a perfect musical comedy score.

The show has always been popular with American amateur companies but it has never played the West End of London professionally. A few years ago the Guildhall School of Music & Drama staged a very good production which forms the basis of this year’s Chichester Festival’s annual musical treat. Otherwise the UK only really knows the piece from the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney film version which jettisoned most of the original Rodgers & Hart songs. Its popularity may stem from the fact that it is the first show in which a group of kids decide, yes, to put on a show right here in the barn!

Seventy years on, Martin Connor has based his latest staging on the one he did for Guildhall School and George Oppenheimer’s rewritten 1959 version which excises a subplot about a Transatlantic air ace landing near the apprentice theatricals, thereby giving them publicity for their show. This deletion is probably no great loss because the flimsy plot is already as light as a feather. To keep from being sent to a work farm, the offspring of a group of fading vaudevillians work in summer stock for a suspect producer who’s trying to attract backers for a lousy show he’s staging in the sticks. He books a would-be star, one Baby Rose Owen, who arrives with her typically pushy stage mother. The kids decide to sabotage the show and put on their own revue instead. It may be pure mush but it’s handled so delicately and with such musical and lyrical finesse by Rodgers and Hart that it would win over the hardest of cold hearts.

For the new version some five songs have been interpolated from other Rodgers & Hart shows and films: ‘Any old place with you’, ‘You took advantage of me’, ‘You’re nearer’, ‘When she goes on the stage’ and ‘At the Roxy Music Hall’. Some politically-correct tinkering has also been carried out on ‘Light on our feet’ which was originally written for The Nicholas Brothers and called ‘All dark people (is light on their feet)’.

Martin Connor has assembled a talented young cast who excel in Bill Deamer’s energetic choreography. Mark McGee as Valentine (the subject of the song ‘My funny Valentine’) and Donna Steele as Billie Edwards make a good couple of teenage heroes, while Matthew Hart as Gus Fielding and Kay Murphy as Dolores Reynolds are a feisty pair who take the floor for ‘I wish I were in love again’ almost eclipsing Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney’s version in “Words and Music”, the film biography of Rodgers and Hart. Sophia Ragavelas comes into her own for ‘Johnny One-Note’ (another Garland favourite). Talking of Judy Garland, her daughter Lorna Luft plays Mrs Phyllis Owen, the epitome of terrible stage mothers, as if to the manner born, giving her two numbers the full Ethel Merman treatment. If Martin Connor wants to do “Gypsy” (and I think he ought to) he already has a Madame Rose in Miss Luft. Finally, Rolf Saxon, looking like a young Phil Silvers, has good fun with the part of Seymour Fleming, the dodgy producer.

But really the whole production just brims over with good things in a joyous celebration of the classic American musical. Hugh Durrant’s witty and colourful designs and Binnie Bowerman’s lavish costumes add a shimmering touch to the proceedings. It’s true that they don’t write musicals like this any more because nobody can write songs like Rodgers & Hart did and even they probably didn’t realise they were writing great songs that would last forever. It was just impossible for them to write a bad song. Nobody can write songs like these because the zeitgeist of the 1930s cannot be re-created, however much we may want to try. “Babes in Arms” at Chichester (no hope of it coming to London, I suppose?) is enough to wipe a curious pastiche like “The Drowsy Chaperone” right off the map.

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