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Friday, 11 November 2011 17:36

Oooh, baby, baby

Written by Andrea Braun
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Should you see Baby, currently in its second of three weeks at Citilites, you might be as surprised as I was to learn this is Nick Moramarco’s maiden voyage as a director. He has pulled together a smart show with nine actors sometimes all on stage at once in a space the side of a postage stamp. Of course, there is a lot more to direction than moving the players around, but that skill is integral to a show’s pacing. Also, the minimal set on which Moramarco collaborated with GP Hunsaker is dominated by a bed (no surprise there, considering the subject) but it pushes back in the wall when the area in front of it needs to be clear for singing and dancing and such.

The set’s only drawback is that the upstage left and right entrances are two high steps which save precious space and work all right for the taller actors, but are a bit awkward for others. Still, there were no mishaps last night, and Moramarco proved he can come through where it counts in guiding his cast to effective and affecting performances. All are strong singers, with the new-to-me Janice Lea Codispoti (as Arlene) who has some performance credits, but seems mostly to have been hiding her light under a bushel in Belleville. I’d like to see (and hear) more of her. Singling her out, however, is to take nothing away from the rest.

Lizzie (Caroline Kidwell, a precocious high school junior in real life) and Danny (Devon Norris) are juniors in college and in an apparently new relationship when she learns she’s pregnant. (Aside: I hate the term “we’re pregnant.” No, WE aren’t; SHE is. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.) At 21, they are still kids in many ways; in fact, Danny’s biggest worry up ‘til now is telling his mom he’s changing his major from science to music. Pam (Sabra Sellers) and Nick (Peter Merideth) are a thirtyish married couple who’ve been trying to have a baby for two years when she calls the doctor’s office and hears she’s expecting. Finally, Arlene and Alan (Robert Breig) are new empty-nesters who find they’ve brought a little “surprise” back with them from their twentieth anniversary celebration, during which, awash in champagne, ironically neither can even remember the precipitating event.

As prospective parents do, these characters run through the gamut of emotions. The three women happen to be in the doctor’s office at the same time and figure out from a waiting room conversation that they’re “Kevin Baconed” in various ways through the college campus where they all have connections to each other as students, teachers or spouses. They sing about the woman stuff that goes back to tribal cultures—morning sickness, mood swings, and other indignities in an energetic trio, “I Want It All.” Baby’s score by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire has an ‘80s pop sensibility, but Maltby’s lyrics are generally contemporary.

Baby opened in 1983 and was much honored with nominations both on and off-Broadway, and it’s not hard to see why. It contains all the elements of the traditional book musical while being nearly sung-through, and points both back to the Golden Age of Rodgers and Hammerstein and forward to the issue-driven shows that came after it. This isn’t to indicate an exact continuum because there were all sorts of outliers that did very well from Hair to anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber before his work got bloated, but there is a perceptible trajectory, and a show like Baby has a distinct place on it. But its strengths also point to its major weakness: It does feel dated. It reminded me of the television series “Thirtysomething” where a clutch of old friends spent an hour each week examining their feelings and blowing them out of proportion. There is a sense of that kind of self-absorption among these people.

Baby does have the pregnancy hook that makes the emotions more justified than they might otherwise be. The “fortysomethings” Alan and Arlene are forced to examine much more than just how they feel about starting over as parents. Lizzie and Danny are pushed into premature adulthood and aren’t quite sure how to handle it. Pam and Nick must deal with the stresses infertility has placed on their marriage and especially their sex life. Dads get their turn at bat (literally, the setting is a softball game) in “Fatherhood Blues,” where their doubts and fears mingle with the pride of having achieved offspring. As the show goes on, the couples sing songs tailored to their particular circumstances.

In addition to the central characters, three other excellent actors play various parts throughout as a chorus when a fuller sound is needed, a “Chorus” to comment on the action, and in the small roles of colleagues and medical staff. Paul Edwards has a funny turn as a specialist Pam and Nick consult, and Alice Kinsella and Lauren Berkowitz add energy and fine voices to the mix. Moramarco is also onstage music director and keyboard player in a small combo above and behind the action. After a while, we barely notice them, as it should be. The volume is calibrated to enhance the voices, not drown them out, and the lyrics are well-enunciated.

The singers are not mic-ed, and that is a real pleasure these days. The voices don’t always sound perfect, but to me, “perfect” can easily become boring. There’s a bit of choreography by Belinda Quimby, and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes seem mostly right, while Steven J. Miller’s lights contribute to mood. I do have a quibble with Hunsaker’s props, which do much to set scenes but also cause a problem when one character uses an iMac and everyone has cell phones when some topical lyrics from the 1980s remain unaltered.

I don’t think Baby is performed often these days, but it is more than a period piece. It’s too long, about 2 ½ hours with intermission, but is a mostly enjoyable trip through one of life’s most mysterious, frightening and joyous passages.

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