'Baby' review — a 'stripped down' production struggles with exposition

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    November 15, 2021

    A collection of beautiful Broadway-scale voices roar across the 60-seat performance space of Theatrelab in Manhattan as the musical Baby announces that it is back! The only problem is the show is entirely too much for such a small venue. That theme of too much, or doing the most with the least, is an ever-present issue that Out of the Box Theatrics never resolves in the remount of its 2019 production. 

    But what does "too much" mean? Well, Baby follows three couples ― college sweethearts on the cusp of adulting, two established 30-year-olds, and an older couple ― as they all process surprise pregnancies. Rather than focus on one couple, the show tries to be all things to its six principal characters, so that what one gets is more of an underdeveloped mini-series than a musical. This manifests as a 2-hour-and-40-minute-long beast that, regardless of how well directed and performed it is, overstays its welcome by at least 50 minutes.

    During a pre-show announcement, the production's director and choroegrapher Ethan Paulini revealed that his team worked with the show’s original creators ― composer David Shire, lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., and book writer Sybil Pearson ― to update the show. Indeed, Maltby, who served as the original 1983 Broadway production’s director, is credited as a directing and writing consultant. 

    Their updates include transforming the college coupling of Lizzie (Liz Flemming) and Danny (Johnny Link) into a legally blind and partially deaf duo, as well as the formerly heterosexual 30-year-olds into a lesbian couple ― Pam (Danielle Summons) and Nicki (Jamila Sabares-Klemm). Additionally, rather than observe six white people kvetching about their relationships, the casting for this production includes two Black people and one Filipina actress among its principals.

    These changes are welcome breaks with Baby’s aggressively white and heternormative view, but they fail to cut through the show’s original sin: relentless didacticism. For example, Pam and Nicki go through an exposition-heavy visit with an invitro fertilization specialist that tediously explains the entire process to the audience. Similarly, Danny and Lizzie over-narrate how they met and fell in love at their “woke college” in a scene that could have been dispatched with a few throwaway lines.

    When the show isn’t revealing information that anyone with an internet connection or reasonable life experience could divine for themselves, it is musicalizing trivial moments that could have been omitted altogether. For example, the twin solos in “The Plaza Song” feature Arlene (Julia Murney) and Alan (Robert H. Fowler) attempting to figure out how “it” happened ― while cute, this song is woefully unnecessary. This says nothing of the show’s seven reprises or the regressively stale repetitions of “being a guy is hard” that one finds in “Fatherhood Blues” or “At Night She Comes Home To Me.”

    Of course, certain sequences, such as when Lizzie and Danny contemplate “What Could Be Better” than being together or when Pam, Lizzie, and Arlene reveal that they want all aspects of womanhood in “I Want It All” are absolutely thrilling and essential to the musical’s action and character development. And that gets down to Baby’s primary flaw: Its non-child-carrying characters serve best as supporters while leaving the heavy lifting to those who plan on giving birth, but, unfortunately, because this production gives them equal musical importance, the show never entirely takes off.

    Decades ago, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were asked whether the music or the lyrics came first when putting together a musical. They replied, “the book.” There is an alternate universe where Sybil Pearson’s book for Baby had the courage to embrace Clare Boothe Luce's perspective in The Women by eliminating the presence of its male characters all together. That show might accomplish what this production cannot: to inject life into a musical that is ostensibly about giving birth but that actually wants to investigate balancing romance, friendship, and partnership. 

    Alternatively, I wonder how Baby might look if it concentrated entirely on one couple while developing the thoughts and fears of that mother, rather than flip-flopping back and forth over what she wants.

    Although all of the actors are wonderful in this production, if I could vote for one of Baby’s couples to take center stage, I’d focus on Arlene and Alan. It is a treat to see Julia Murney dispensing dry one-liners and singing in a style different from her typical belt, and also, their story about breaking the the compromises of a “traditional” marriage by using a late-in-life pregnancy as its vehicle deserves to be fully seen.

    Until the day that Baby embraces such a streamlined view, audiences can enjoy the glories of Out of the Box Theatrics’ stripped-down though spunky and fantastically sung production. Despite being bogged down with an unwieldy book and too many songs, this production gives as good as Baby can get.

    Baby is running at Theatrelab through December 12.

    Photo credit: Johnny Link, Liz Flemming, Danielle Summons, and Jamila Sabares-Klemm in Baby. (Photo by Jo Chiang)