Review: Baby, the musical by Austin Theatre Project
by Michael Meigs
No, it's not really about babies at all. Baby the musical is about anticipation, apprehension and the enormous changes that loom when a couple faces the prospect of having -- or not having -- a child. With their cheerily pulsating opening numbers Baby Baby Baby and I Want It All , David Shire and Richard Maltby suggest a merry adventure, but -- as in real life -- elation gives way to uncertainty in face of the enormity of life changes. After that sprightly opening this 1983 creation becomes far more intimate than your typical Broadway musical, coming closer to a chamber musicale or even a pocket opera.
Three couples are neatly spread across the spectrum of ages. Perhaps a shade too neatly, but the leads are all fine singers and actors who quickly win our sympathy and bring the characters to life. Haley Montgomery is Lizzie the self-certain but entirely naïve undergraduate who's delighted to be pregnant and breezily uninterested in getting married to her live-in boyfriend Danny. Joey Banks in that role is caught between his own ambitions and his sense of responsibility.
Pam and Nick (Ryan Smith and Jim Lindsay), married for almost ten years, initially think that they've finally managed to conceive, only to learn that a nurse mixed up test results. Alan and Arlene (Kevin Oliver and Suzanne Orzech) have sent the last of three daughters off to college and anticipate empty nesting, only to find that those extra bottles of champagne at their twentieth anniversary celebration at the Plaza Hotel have yielded an unexpected consequence: Arlene is expecting.
Baby offers clever comedy, feeling and regular measures of sympathetic irony as the members of these couples try to measure up to one another's expectations and to the relatively messy business of moving from one stage of life to another.
A chorus of five sits discreetly with musical director Blackburn and the musicians at deep center stage, and they step forward from time to time to represent the world outside these three couples. Rodnesha Green is particularly amusing as the physician at a fertility clinic and later as a passerby enchanted with Lizzie's big belly. When the guys get together for softball practice Cody Wayne Eastman and Matt Gauk give Danny a comic ragging about the downsides of fatherhood (The Fatherhood Blues) but the sprightly music and the celebration suggest a completely opposite message.
You may identify more with one or another of these pairs, depending upon your own age. Those of us who've navigated all three stages of life portrayed here will be fully vulnerable to all three, and may well recognize a dynamic typical to devoted couples: often one is the optimistic emotional plunger (Lizzy, Nick and Alan) while the other is more aware of consequences (Danny, Pam and Arlene). Suzanne Orzech, both vivacious and vulnerable, is particularly appealing.
It's a surprisingly lengthy production, starting at 7:30 p.m. and winding up around half past ten. One theatre buff in our party speculated that some judicious trimming of musical numbers would have assured a stronger grip on the audience, particularly in the second act as these stories converge. I assume that both the Austin Theatre Project participants, all very accomplished musically, and the rights holders were reluctant to yield a single number or a single note.
Artistic director Barbara Schuler and Blackburn are the movers behind the newly established ATP company, and they reach out earnestly to inform audiences of their ambition eventually to acquire their own locale. For the nonce, ATP is using borrowed and rented spaces, toting props and instruments back and forth in the trunks of their own cars. The Dougherty Arts Center theatre is serviceable but only just; at times this production felt somewhat under-illuminated. Nothing daunted, the ATP has announced a six-play season for 2013 featuring four stage musicals, with Avenue Q and an Austin holiday musical project among them.
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