The musical that's responsible for the "Let's put on a show in the barn" cliché, Babes In Arms -- a spirited story of young performers who want to bring their revue to Broadway -- is full of Rodgers and Hart tunes that have now become standards. When the songs include "The Lady is a Tramp," "My Funny Valentine" and "Johnny One Note," plot is superfluous.
According to artistic director Marcia Seligson, this was the first professional production of Babes in Arms in Los Angeles. Seligson and her colleagues chose one of the several versions of the book that exist, this one written by George Oppenheimer in 1959. Theater maven Bunny Byron (played by Jodi Benson, the voice of Disney's Little Mermaid) must come up with a hit show or she will be forced to sell her share in a Cape Cod playhouse to her unscrupulous partner (Steve Vinovich). Sadly, their latest production -- The Deep North, a tired old Southern melodrama -- would have audiences clambering for the exits if they had ever shown up in the first place. The apprentices who work the theater have a perfect show read to go, one filled with snappy tunes and crowd-pleasing dances, but the theater owner refuses to give them a chance. So Valentine White, the scrappy amateur composer of the revue (played here by ex-New Kids on the Block member Joey McIntyre), and his plucky girl Friday (Bets Malone) conspire with their fellows and with a former Hollywood star (Jenna Leigh Green) to give the gang a fighting chance.
The script and lyrics of this version of the show make notice of the 1950s with references to Mary Martin and Frank Sinatra, but the lightweight story doesn't really work when set in that era. At the time, the young people of America were exploding under the tutelage of such icons as James Dean and Marlon Brando; they weren't preparing for hoe-downs. Director Glenn Casale kept a farcical rhythm jumping in the Reprise! production of Anything Goes a few years ago, but here the pacing lags, particularly in comic scenes like the sabotage of The Deep North in Act II.
There must have been a certain amount of tittering when it was announced that McIntyre would replace Neil Patrick Harris as the leading man of this production. Although McIntyre's pre-hip hop stage antics in the '80s remain burned into my memory, I tried to keep an open mind. After all, I'm sure some people had low expectations of Harris -- Doogie Howser himself! -- caught in a world of transvestites, drug addicts, and AIDS in the L.A. production of Rent, yet that performance was riveting. It would be nice to dispel doubts of how well McIntyre would fare in taking on a role that Mickey Rooney made famous in the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms, for everyone loves an underdog. Unfortunately, despite a boyish gumption, McIntyre is miscast as Val White and lacks the vocal range necessary for the part: The veins in his neck bulge every time he attempts high notes, which he usually ends up swallowing.
However, his three female co-stars show true charisma. Benson, a theater workhorse who gave a tender performance in Chess back in the early '90s, knocks out the showstopping "The Lady Is A Tramp" and "Johnny One-Note" with lots of charm and a dynamic voice. Beth Malone as the tomboyish but sexually ripe Terry has an effervescent smile to match the mischievous grin of her partner, Jeffrey Schecter. Bets Malone provides the heart of the piece as Val's love interest, singing "My Funny Valentine" persuasively. And, in what should have been a throwaway role, Rick D. Wasserman displays considerable comic talent as the Broadway wunderkind who comes to town and helps the kids' dreams come true.
This production of Babes In Arms is diverting but misses the magic of the score itself, and that's too bad. With a better choice of script edition or tighter pacing, it could have been another winner for Reprise!