LaChanze and Norm Lewis in Baby(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
LaChanze and Norm Lewis in Baby
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)

The original 1983 Broadway production of Baby wasn’t exactly a success; it only ran for 241 performances, though it launched at least one notable career (that of Liz Callaway). But because its subject matter touches on something that’s very special in many people’s lives and its score is full of bouncy, tuneful songs, the show has been frequently produced in venues of all sizes by all sorts of theater companies.

You’re unlikely to find a better production of Baby than the one that has just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse. With its creators (librettist Sybille Pearson, lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., and composer David Shire) on hand to tweak the book and score, plus a top-notch cast featuring such major Broadway talents as Carolee Carmello, LaChanze, Norm Lewis, and Michael Rupert, what’s not to love?

Well, quite simply, the musical itself. It’s somewhat fitting that Maltby and Shire are perhaps best known for their revues Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever, as they seem to be ideal composers for that type of show. They’re good at fleshing out situations and characters but not quite as skillful at integrating their songs into the overall dramatic structure of a piece.

The episodic nature of Baby doesn’t make efficient storytelling easy. The show tracks three couples — the 20ish college students Lizzie and Danny (Moeisha McGill and Chad Kimball), the 30ish Nick and Pam (Lewis and LaChanze), and the 40ish Alan and Arlene (Rupert and Carmello) — through their impending parenthood. Lizzie and Danny conceive by accident and are unsure about having a child when they’re barely adults themselves; Nick and Pam desperately want kids but have been unable to do so thus far; Alan and Arlene have already seen their first three children grow up and leave home, and they’re not sure how another will impact their lives.

These stories occasionally intersect, but only tangentially. Because the characters are so removed from each other dramatically, their tales don’t really inform one another. The book is problematic — and the songs don’t help matters much. If you saw Big in one of its incarnations, either as a 1996 Broadway flop or as a more successful touring/regional production, you know that the show is filled with good Maltby-Shire songs that don’t quite fit. It’s much the same with Baby. For example, “Patterns” is so perfect for the character singing it as to be dramatically redundant; the number is included here but one can easily understand why it was cut during the original production’s preview period.

Still, it’s hard not to like the score, which contains one truly great song (“The Story Goes On,” Lizzie’s realization that she is a link in the chain of life) and a number of others that come pretty close, like the charming and upbeat “Fatherhood Blues” for the men, “I Want It All” for the women, and Nick and Pam’s “Romance” (in which they attempt to have by-the-book sex). Even the minor, more plot-heavy numbers come across well; many of them are laced liberally with humor, and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations make them sound fresh and fun. (Eugene Gwozdz is the musical director.) Maltby and Shire wrote one new song for this production: “End of Summer,” which the women sing when their relationships with their partners are at their lowest points. It’s a nice-enough number but it feels just a bit superfluous.

Michael Rupert and Carolee Carmello in Baby(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
Michael Rupert and Carolee Carmello in Baby
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)

As for the performers, Lewis and LaChanze are so terrific together that one only wishes these two world-class talents would share the stage more often and get more of the high-profile roles they deserve. The comedy of the show comes naturally to them, and they depict the Nick-Pam relationship so effortlessly in every scene and song that it’s impossible not to love these characters and want them to succeed. Carmello and Rupert face a greater challenge in that the Alan-Arlene story has less inherent heat, but their cool performances are appropriate for their roles. Although Kimball and McGill don’t have a great deal of chemistry with each other, their voices blend well and their portrayals are youthfully energetic. As for Lenny Wolpe, who appears in only one scene as a fertility doctor, he almost steals the show with his hilarious turn.

Thom Heyer’s costumes are well designed and F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting is colorful. Duncan Robert Edwards’s sound design is less than ideal, muddying the voices of the cast members and never sounding natural. As for Michael Anania’s scenery, it’s limited to a cyclorama, some sliding white panels, and a few pieces of furniture; it works in an abstract way but the show would benefit from a bit more visual style. On the other hand, a major scene and lighting change in the middle of “The Story Goes On” distracts from McGill’s performance of the song; sometimes, subtlety is the better way to go.

That’s the one significant lapse in director Mark S. Hoebee’s staging. Getting Baby up on its feet and running must have been a difficult task, so Hoebee should be commended for his efforts. Textual alterations aside — the story of one of the couples is significantly changed in the second act — one has to admire the work of the show’s creators, then and now. But if the Paper Mill production of Baby is, in fact, the best you’ll ever see, then that means the show will never fully work.

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Closed: May 9, 2004