Sisters, sisters:Millicent Martin and Leslie Dennistonin What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(Photo:  Bruce Bennett)
Sisters, sisters:
Millicent Martin and Leslie Denniston
in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
(Photo: Bruce Bennett)
What's a poor woman to do when her sister serves her rat for dinner? If you answered, "Break into hysterics," you haven't seen the world premiere musical What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? What made Joan Crawford shriek in horror and zoom madly about in her wheelchair in the 1962 movie of Baby Jane causes the stage version of Blanche Hudson to break into song -- and a pretty, life-affirming ballad at that.

Such incongruity between the plot and the musical numbers is what often mars this ambitious production by Houston's Theatre Under the Stars and Michael Rose Limited. That's a shame, because beneath the mishmash of ill-conceived songs, dances, and stunted motivations, there lies a good musical just waiting for somebody to edit and transform it.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is, of course, best known in the form of the 1962 flick that starred Crawford and Bette Davis. The latter portrayed Baby Jane, a demented former child star living with her sister, Blanche, a 1930s movie star whose career ended when she was paralyzed in a mysterious accident involving Jane. The movie was based on a novel by Henry Farrell, who has written the libretto for the musical. Although he penned several other works that were turned into movies, most notably Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and the Truffaut film Une belle fille comme moi (Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me), Farrell has never before tried his hand at a musical's book -- and it shows.

The other members of the collaborative team are more experienced but haven't been brightening the lights of Broadway recently. Composer Lee Pockriss's last Broadway credit was the 1963 musical Tovarich, starring Vivien Leigh. Lyricist Hal Hackady is best known for his work with composer Larry Grossman on Minnie's Boys (1970), Goodtime Charley (1975), and Snoopy!!! (1982).

For Baby Jane, Pockriss has written songs that are largely nondescript. You won't leave the theater humming any of them, which is a bit ironic considering that the only song in the movie -- "I've Written a Letter to Daddy," which is not included in the musical -- is one of those tunes that you can't seem to get out of your head. Likewise, Hackady's lyrics are mostly ordinary; when you do take special notice of them, it's because they're awful. There's a particularly ghastly rhyming of "judge" with "fudge" in the duet "Sisters," and Blanche's post-rat soliloquy, "I Still Have Tomorrow," contains such banal sentiments as "It's time to join the living again" and "I want to feel the wind blow through my hair again." Even when she's dying of starvation at the end, Hackady can't stop putting platitudes into Blanche's mouth: "We'll be a team at last," she sings to the zoned-out Jane in "Time We Had a Party."

Baby Jane does have impressive production values. The scenic design by Jerome Sirlin is gorgeous, and Sirlin has developed special digital projection effects that allow the sisters' gloomy mansion to be transformed into different imaginary worlds. Built on two levels, the set consists of a lower floor, complete with a creepy mirror, that is Baby Jane's domain; upstairs is Blanche's virtual prison, which she can escape only with the help of Jane, who places her in an elevator chair that she operates with a key. In one of the few moments when you really feel Blanche's terror, Jane stops the elevator chair half way down the stairs, then taunts the stranded Blanche with the key. A hand railing that turns neon purple adds to the eerieness.

The show is also blessed with Richard Winkler's innovative lightning design. Moving back and forth in time, and in and out of its characters' moods and fantasies, Baby Jane benefits from effects that include strange shadows, glitzy Las Vegas stage lights, and ghostly funhouse faces. Eduardo Sicangco adds to the visual splendor with his costume designs, which run the gamut from Jane's little-girl-lost outfits to gowns and tuxes worthy of an Astaire and Rogers spectacle.

The cast delivers, too, with Millicent Martin doing the honors as Jane. Known to TV viewers for her role as Daphne's mother on Frasier, Martin here is nasty and pathetic by turns. If she is not as creepy or vulnerable as she might be, the fault lies in the book, which doesn't give Jane the same clear motivations she has in the movie. With her strong, clear voice, Leslie Denniston also turns in a good performance as Blanche; her best number is her first, the simple but affecting "Four Walls." Yet the sketchy book hampers her, too, turning the character into little more than a nice lady in a wheelchair rather than a complex and manipulative woman who has always envied her sister, despite appearances to the contrary.

The supporting cast also performs ably. As the child Baby Jane, Lea Marie Golde delivers her cheesy vaudeville songs with a little trouper's panache. (Brooke Singer plays Baby Jane at matinées.) Cara Cochran is appropriately sullen as the child Blanche, and Jim Weston plays the girls' smarmy daddy to great effect. Mary Illes and A.J. Vincent are the personification of Hollywood glamour as the young movie star Blanche and her lover, Martin. Joanne Bonasso gets a lot of mileage out of her appearances as the scrappy, drunken Young Jane, and Francie Mendenhall is all ambitious brashness as the tough gossip columnist who threatens to expose Young Blanche's adulterous love affair.

Adding a special spark to the second act is Jim Blanchette as Edwin, the unemployed musician who answers Jane's ad for an accompanist for her "Las Vegas tour." Tubby and wearing ill-fitting clothes, Blanchette clearly brings to mind the young Victor Buono, who played the same role so wonderfully in the movie. Blanchette's duet with Jane, "He's Here," is one of the best songs of the evening and is followed by another entertaining number: Jane's flashy fantasy about her Las Vegas act, "When Am I Gonna Be Me?"

A.J. Vincent and Maril Illesin What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?(Photo:  Bruce Bennett)
A.J. Vincent and Maril Illes
in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
(Photo: Bruce Bennett)
Still, for everything the collaborators give, they take something away. This is most notable in the role of Edna the maid, played by Bambi Jones. Called Elvira in the movie, this character supplied much of the suspense and tension of the plot, but so little is made of her here that she might as well have been written out; indeed, it is Edwin who provides the catalyst for Jane's downfall. Nevertheless, Jones makes the most of her small role, as does John Raymond Barker in a comic turn as a mailman and Paul Hope as the pompous producer Gault.

Baby Jane could have been much improved if David Taylor's direction was tighter. Taylor had the chance to make the show stranger, creepier, or edgier, but didn't. This is especially true of Jane's number "Talent," in which she compares her stardom to Blanche's, and "Sisters," which is wrong-headedly staged for humor. Overdone choreography by Dan Siretta hurts the production, too, especially in Act II's "Do I Care." Here, in another exmple of incongruity between music and plot, the dancers keep dancing after a major disturbance.

Perhaps the main problem with this Baby Jane lies in the collaborators' insistence that the show is not supposed to be "campy" but is intended as a more-or-less serious examination of the disturbed internal lives of two sisters. It's an assertion that makes you wonder whether certain numbers exist not to advance the story but to exorcise the ghosts of Davis and Crawford. If so, maybe everybody involved with producing Baby Jane should watch the movie again. In and of itself, it is not camp; it acquired that reputation mostly because of the highly publicized feud between Davis and Crawford. If you forget all that and watch as the great Bette Davis turns herself into a creature who inspires both horror and pity, it's possible to envision a musical stage version of the film that doesn't have someone bursting into mediocre song every two seconds. With more edge, deeper psychological insight, and a lot of cutting, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? could be packing them in for a long time.