David Shire and Richard Maltby Jnr‘s 1983 Broadway hit, Baby, has finally made it over the pond for a UK premiere in London but you have to ask yourself, was it worth the wait?
MKEC Productions specialise in reviving obscure musical theatre gems from the past to stage at the Drayton Arms Theatre. Until recently it has been an annual event, much like Christmas, with everyone looking forward to their interpretation of a vintage show.
But I think they’ve given birth to a dud with Baby.
It opened last night and what is clearly evident is how different the world is 35 years on from its premiere in New York.
Does a show which features three straight, white, middle-class, couples whose menfolk want to care for their submissive other halves, have any relevance to today?
Even I, at my ripe old age, was appalled at Sybille Pearson’s twee and terribly dated dialogue, limited as it is, which seems to emphasis the American male ideal that they are the important hunter/gatherers and their hopeless homemakers can’t even get a little thing like contraception right.
There is the nub of a good story here. Obviously the trials and tribulations of pregnancy and parenthood is a perpetual theme that we can all recognise.
Having a baby is no walk in the park, despite what people think. Some people have trouble conceiving and then carrying, others find themselves up the duff with alarming regularity and end up breeding like rabbits.
And, as one of the characters in Baby, points out, you’ve then got them for the next 18 years – although nowadays, with the boomerang generation, we can’t get rid of them even then.
Baby is a product of its time and we now live in a new millennium where couples aren’t pressurised into breeding. It’s okay to live without children.
But, if they are unable to conceive, they can pursue IVF, or adopt, independent girls can raise a child on their own, and more and more middle-aged women are delaying motherhood for a career, and then successfully, safely, giving birth.
Director Marc Kelly has declined to update the story so we’re burdened with a quaint, 1980s Middle-America, perspective which owes a lot to the 1960s. I don’t remember us being so backward in our thinking on this side of the Atlantic 35 years ago.
We’re introduced to three couples – college students Danny and Lizzie; bubbly netball coach Pam Sakarian, and her mustachioed-husband, Nick; and 40-somethings, Alan and Arlene McNalley, who have sent the last of their three daughters off to uni and are now facing life on their own.
When Lizzie announces that she’s pregnant her boyfriend’s first reaction was to insist that they get married “because that’s the right thing to do.”
He then he leaves her for the summer to bring home the bacon while she copes alone.
It’s no wonder she gets the wobbles (and if I had perfect strangers groping my bump during any of my three pregnancies, as Lizzie does, I’d have called the police).
Another one unsure of what to do is 43-year-old Arlene who finds she is “with child” after a night out celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary.
She contemplates a termination but buckles when she sees how much her husband wants the baby.
But she questions whether they stayed together simply for the kids, and is having another child, at their time of life, an attempt to paper over the cracks in their relationship?
And then we have Pam and Nick who spend the entire show struggling to conceive with Pam being made to feel guilty because Nick is firing blanks.
Baby is billed as a romcom musical but there is very little romance. Indeed, there is very little light and an awful lot of anxiety and despondency, and the comedy falls flat at just about every line. It just isn’t funny.
Shire and Maltby’s songs are fine, but nothing more than that. They are so plenteous, with more than 20 original tunes, that there’s little space for dialogue, but what there is struggles to be meaningful, relevant, or stimulating.
But there are standout musical performances from Hollie Paige Farr as Lizzie, Barbara Jaeson as Arlene and Danny Whelan as Danny.
I thought that the additional ensemble of seven – making the intimate performance space look very overcrowded – was unnecessary (although I’d keep an eye on Robert O’Malley who has a terrific voice) and added little to the production as a whole.
I admire MKEC for their perseverance in rediscovering long forgotten musicals but sometimes there’s a very good reason why a show, even one Tony-Award nominated, is left on the shelf to gather dust.
As a period piece it is a curiosity but, even then, it’s hard to view this favourably through retro, rose-tinted, glasses.
Baby runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until November 9
This revival of Baby, a 1983 Tony-nominated romcom musical, struggles to be funny or relevant but features some standout musical performances.