When the cat’s away, the mice will play. It works the same way if you substitute “parents” for cats, and “kids” for mice, especially in the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms. It is the second presentation in the 40th anniversary season of Ohio Light Opera in Wooster. Set in the early 1930s during the Depression, parents who were vaudeville stars set out on tour to earn some money to live on. They leave various teen-aged kids behind in Seaport, Long Island — so what would be the most logical thing for them to do? Why, put on a show. What else would they do with all that time?
Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart had already produced several hit shows, and for this one, they also wrote the book. The show is filled with memorable songs, a couple of which might throw you temporarily, sung by an unexpected character and with a different tempo than we’re used to hearing. But they’re still all splendid!
The Sheriff seems to think they’d all be better off at the county farm, but they disagree, and proceed with their Follies. This isn’t quite as easy as it first appeared, when they run into a bit of prejudice from one of their peers. Fortunately they tend to ignore it and proceed anyway. Thus we have Valentine LaMar (known as Val) and his sister Maizie; Billie, an intrepid young woman who’s just driven her car from California, only to have it break down in front of the LaMar homestead; the sheriff’s daughter Dolores; and Beau Calhoun, along with the deQuincey brothers — Ivor and Irving — plus the optimist Peter. These are the core of the group, and they set about their plans.
Beau’s older brother Lee proclaims that he is a Southern man, and forbids the inclusion of the deQuincy brothers, putting everyone on edge. They choose to ignore him, a fight ensues, and the Sheriff is ever more determined to send them all off to the county farm. In the meantime, their proposed feature act, the former child star Baby Rose, appears, and agrees with their plan.
Billie has the two big numbers in the show, neither of them as we’re used to hearing them. First is “My Funny Valentine” sung to Val (the Valentine of the title) and in the second act is “The Lady Is a Tramp” which she sings as a declaration of her independence. Both are more uptempo than their usual torch song pace.
Baby Rose gets another of the biggies — “Johnny One-Note,” which leads into a show-stopping dance routine with nearly everyone appearing, including the deQuincey brothers, who’ve just finished a spotlighted dance of their own to “Light on Our Feet.”
The second act provides more dancing as Peter returns, having won the Irish Sweepstakes, and displays his dance prowess in two sequences, the longer one with Maizie in a gorgeous balletic format. In the meantime, the radio announces the imminent arrival of the French aviator Rene Flambard who will be landing in their yard. Actually, he crashes, knocking himself out, so quick-thinking Val dons his uniform and expresses his gratitude to the folks who’ve greeted him. When Rene comes back to himself again, Val happily gives back the uniform.
Of course, all’s well that ends well, and with such wonderful music, why not? Leading the cast are Sarah Best as Billie; Spencer Reese as Val, as well as the choreographer; Timothy McGowan as Peter with Hannah Kurth as Maizie; Alexa Devlin as Baby Rose; DeShaun Tost and Adam Kirk as the deQuincy brothers, Irving and Ivor, respectively; Gretchen Windt as Dolores, with Cory Clines as her brother, the Sheriff. Garrett Medlock was Rene Flambeau and Jonathan Heller was Lee Calhoun.
Stage director Steven Daigle kept the action moving smoothly, while Steven Byess was in charge of the orchestra. The versatile set was designed by Victor Shonk, with lighting by Brittany Shemuga. Stephanie Eubank designed the period-appropriate costumes. All in all, a dandy production.
Note: When originally produced in 1937, it reflected that era in its political incorrectness. Although a few attempts were made to produce it after that, there was not really a PC/sensitive version available until 1998 when the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music presented their slightly-edited adaptation of the book. It is this version on stage at Ohio Light Opera.)
Babes in Arms is now in repertory through August 11 at the Freedlander Theatre on the campus of Wooster College. For tickets call 330-263-2345 or go to ohiolightopera.