Baby: The Musical: The 1980s Tuner Is Ripe for a Comeback

The nice people at Arizona Broadway Theatre sent someone to lecture me about the way I review theater. Apparently, my last review of an ABT show included a fart joke and the word "fuck" (hey, I'm not Frank Rich), so when I called to ask for a ticket to see this dinner theater's new production of Baby: The Musical, this poor slob (he told me his name, but I wasn't listening) was made to telephone me about how hard they work to make things nice for their audiences and how it's not their fault they're located in Peoria.

Usually when a theater company is this nervous about my coming to see their show, it's because that show is crap (Oops — there I go again, with the scatological profanity!) and they really don't want me to review it. But in this case, that nice man who called me was wasting his time. Baby is smart, tuneful, and so flawlessly performed that I felt as if I were watching theater in a real city (Gad! I can't help myself!).

The title of this well-regarded, little-known book musical by Sybille Pearson suggests a cheeseball theme show, like Menopause: The Musical or Diet: The Musical — another of those over-ripe, goofy tuners that pander to the lowest common denominator with "clever" song-and-dance routines about life's little inevitabilities. But Baby, which played Broadway in the early '80s but has yet to enjoy a high-profile revival, offers no songs about the rigors of morning sickness, no cute novelty number about stretch marks or sappy ballad about how children grow up so quickly. In fact, the babies never actually come. Instead, Richard Maltby and David Shire's songs forward a sharp, thoughtful story about how pending childbirth changes the lives of three couples: one young and unmarried, another middle-aged and surprised to be expecting, and a third who are struggling to conceive.

Maltby and Shire offer musical genres suitable to each of these duos, and so the writing duo's typically verbose Broadway bluster is offset with jazz numbers and catchy pop-rock ditties, all of them performed expertly by an estimable cast. As the young college kids who find themselves pregnant, Nick Anastasia and Elizabeth McMonagle are charming and versatile, and McMonagle belts out the show's signature tune, "The Story Goes On," at the end of Act One and sells the fun sarcasm in "The Ladies Singing Their Song," about how strangers like to touch pregnant women's bellies, with equal style.

As the couple who can't conceive, Brad Rupp and Katrina Hagofsky make beautiful music both in acting scenes (which Rupp must punctuate with his character's annoying Jackie Gleason impersonations) and in their duet "With You," perhaps the musical high point of Act Two. Rupp also shines in a male ensemble number called "Fatherhood Blues," about the dads' future paternity. And while we are spared silly songs about changing diapers and teething rings, I'm sure that D. Scott Withers could have made such nonsense shine. As the empty-nesters, Withers and Caroline McPhee have the most dramatic acting scenes and bring to them the same grace and timing as they do their musical numbers, both separate and apart.

The cast, guided by M. Seth Reines' subtle direction, are so superb and the material so smart and witty that I can only imagine that Baby: The Musical will disappoint an audience looking for something cute, sweet, and much more ordinary.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela