It takes nine months to have a baby, but the waiting period can’t seem as long as “Baby,” a musical about having babies that had a difficult birth last night at the Barrymore.
Fond as we all are of children, the fact is that only parents, in their singleminded wonderment, actually dote on babies. And the book, or semblance of a book, that Sybille Pearson has created for “Baby” dwells so relentlessly and statically on the theme of having babies, from insemination to parturition, that the evening comes close to ending up stillborn.
The stylish songwriting of David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics) comes to the rescue from time to time, though not often enough, and in this, the team’s Broadway debut after several bygone efforts that never reached here, their work is considerably less distinguished than the sparkling collection of Maltby-Shire leftovers that made up the cabaret show, “Starting Here, Starting Now,” several seasons ago. And why, in Jonathan Tunick’s otherwise bright orchestrations played by a snappy onstage band, the unceasing low electronic hum on the F tone (or close) throughout the entire show? Is that what expectant mothers hear all those months? (As I recall, some member of the cast does mention the hum, to be told it is the “sound of hormones singing.” Droning is more like it.)
“Baby” begins as the lights dim (there is no curtain) on a double bed that is almost the only furniture used and, to voice-over narration, we watch circular projections on a scrim showing sperm cells in motion, the ovary awaiting their arrival and, at intervals thereafter, we are given glimpses of the developing fetus until, at the finale, the photo of a newborn babe is shown.
The doggedly uninteresting book revolves ponderously around three couples at a university. The husband (James Congdon) in the oldest couple, who have already raised a couple of children after 20 years of marriage, is a professor or administrator whose wife (Beth Fowler) discovers it’s never too late. The middle couple consists of the track coach (Martin Vidnovic) with the biological odds against him, though not insuperable, for impregnating his eager wife (Catherine Cox). The youngest pair (Todd Graff and Liz Callaway) are juniors, and although she is happy to be pregnant, she if fearful of becoming a wife. Others in the cast of 15 (they outnumber the producers by four) play bit parts when not doing chorus work.
The book, which strains too hard to establish the equality of the sexes in all situations, occasionally manages to break loose from its prevailing concern with conception and the gestation period, and though these forays are welcome (Graff, for example, leaves Callaway over the summer to join a Florida punk rock group), they are not put to sufficiently good use. As for the baby-making subject which occupies most of our time, Callaway expresses our own indifference best during the song in which she calls it a “terrible, unbearable, unsharable joy.”
Despite all the soul-searching, agonizing and somewhat awkward lovemaking episodes, there are pleasing musical moments. The most affecting is “The Story Goes On,” with which Callaway gives rich and delightful voice to the realization that she is part of the past, present and future. Not a novel notion, but one nicely expressed by the songwriters. There are other attractive numbers, too, though such intended sock pieces as “I Want It All” (women’s trio in doctor’s waiting room) and “Fatherhood Blues” (male quintet on the baseball field) don’t quite come off. Shire’s score passes back and forth easily from light rock to traditional show-music forms.
I found all the players – Callaway, Vidnovic and Cox, in particular – winning, and Maltby, with Wayne Cilento’s help in the musical staging, has directed them ably. I was much less taken with designer John Lee Beatty’s annoying use of scrims on travelers, an elaborate arrangement on overhead tracks that resemble an inverted toy-electric-train bed, and actually an enlargement on the scenic device Beatty employs for the Circle Rep’s “Sea Gull.” Rear projections establish scene changes. The costumes (Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s) and lighting (Pat Collins’) are attractive, indeed.
It’s both surprising and disappointing that Shire, who went West several years ago to score a number of successful movies, and Maltby, who stayed here to conceive and assemble the hit musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, have failed to realize their full potential with “Baby” and give Broadway a much-needed boost.
The American musical took a pregnant pause at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night, where a bouncing show, Baby, was safely, well, more or less safely, delivered on stage.
Baby is a musical celebrating maternity...or, rather, celebrating gestation. It starts with wickedly dead-pan account of the saga of impregnation and ends with a scene of parturition. In between the musical lasts the specified nine months - but seems shorter.
Certainly Baby zooms in relentlessly on the wonderment of childbirth - to this extent it is a one-joke show - and undeniably its second act is, unfortunately, less engaging than its first (perhaps even the best of pregnancies can wear out their welcome), yet Sybille Pearson's book is agreeably smart. It asks most of the right questions, even if it doesn't come up with much more than anodyne-style answers.
Three women are pregnant. A young couple - junior at college. She is a 20-year-old majoring in - it seems to be - life, while he is a frenetic punk-rocker majoring in music. They decided to have a baby. He wants to wed, she doesn't.
Couple number two - yes, there are elements of a TV game-show here - are funny and athletic. He is a basketball coach on the same campus, she is an athlete who runs ten miles a day. They desperately want a baby. But, deflation sets in. A mistake has been made. She is not pregnant!
Couple number three is mature. He is in his early fifties, she is approaching menopause. Their three daughters are grown up sufficiently to be away at college. But an imprudent 20th anniversary champagne party and - Bingo! Do they want a second family; having just reduced from five to two, do they want to become three again?
By such legitimate plot devices the miracle of parenthood is kept alive during the course of the evening. Each of the couples is, in effect, writing a Dear Abby letter to the audience, and we listen to their problems like wise, old counselors.
As you will see it is an unusual musical, not easily subject to categorization. It has something in common with the theme-musical such as that current incantation to the joys of age, Taking My Turn. But here, the story-line is intentionally firmer - here are not three anecdotes but three narratives tied, so to speak, on one umbilical cord.
The funniest, and most interesting, story is of the wryly witty, sporty couple, who are having impregnation difficulties - their story, moving from doctor's office to bedroom, has the dimensions of a domestic tragedy only cut down to size by their sense of humor.
To an extent this couple has something in common with David Rudkin's more serious play about childlessness, Ashes, which caused a stir some seasons back. However, for good and bad, here the musical format effectively removes most of the sting.
The solution the elder couple find to their little problem seems simplistic, and the young rebels' turn toward conformity is also predictable.
Thus, no doubt, the weaker second act. Yet the musical is definitely worth the time of night, it has style and energy, a rare combination. The music by David Shire is tuneful, at times rhapsodic, an although not possessed or any great originality, for it goes in one ear and out the other without any profound effect on the space between, it is definitely pleasant. Richard Maltby Jr. has provided lyrics ranging between the pertinent and innocuous but never hitting the memorable.
However, this is one of those rare musicals where the book, the staging and the performances are paramount. And all these are excellent. Miss Pearson's elegant and eloquent book, while skating around the theme's thin ice, proves pleasantly literate, and Maltby, wearing his second hat as director, has staged the work with a happy zest.
The set designer, John Lee Beatty, takes his theme from the changing seasons as symbolic of the fetus's growth, and his effects are achieved chiefly by a constant interplay of gauze curtains that apparently work on a computerized grid as complex as a clover-leaf on a highway.
The seasonal lighting by Pat Collins and Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's costumes, all aid and abet, as do the film sequences of embryonic development which are - wouldn't you guess? - Swedish.
But what finally gives the show its special pizzazz is the adorable performance by the cast. As the youngest couple, the radiant Liz Callaway and the flakily responsible Todd Graff, are pure delight, and Barbara Gilbert, a sharp-eyed athlete and Martin Vidnovic as the good-natured coach are equally, if more desperately, cute and convincing.
The show itself has not dealt so kindly with the two lovers in maturity. But Beth Fowler and James Congdon both do their best to make their roles appealing, if not quite credible.
An unusual musical about one of the world's most usual subjects: Pregnancy to music, and by no means still-born. What next? A musical about dying perhaps? There's another rite of passage ready for the orchestrator's right of way.
''When you're pregnant, your emotions run all over the place,'' says a mother-to-be in ''Baby,'' the new musical at the Barrymore. ''Baby'' runs all over the place, too, but never so far afield that it forsakes those intimate emotions. At a time when nearly every Broadway musical, good and bad, aims for the big kill with gargantuan pyrotechnics, here is a modestly scaled entertainment that woos us with such basic commodities as warm feelings, an exuberant cast and a lovely score. Perfect ''Baby'' is not, but it often makes up in buoyancy and charm what it lacks in forceful forward drive.
Should you wish to avail yourself of the evening's assets, be prepared for the drawbacks: You'll have to put up with a jerry-built book littered with sitcom jokes. ''Baby'' also requires a fondness for its subject. This show is indeed about making babies, and it's definitely not for anyone who believes that expectant parents should be seen and not heard.
Set in an unidentified college town, ''Baby'' focuses on three prototypical couples as they progress (or try to progress) through the nine longest months in any family's life. The youngest parents (Liz Callaway and Todd Graff) are undergraduates who find it easier to commit to parenthood than to marriage. The eldest (Beth Fowler and James Congdon) are middle-aged marrieds who have already raised three kids when the stork unexpectedly comes knocking again. (Mom is 43.) In between are Martin Vidnovic and Catherine Cox, as a couple whose hunger for a child is thwarted by the mathematics of infertility.
As you can see, the book's author, Sybille Pearson, has chosen her characters as if she were a pollster in search of a statistical cross-section of modern (and uniformly model) parents. Worse, this writer - as in her play ''Sally and Marsha'' - values hit-and-miss one-liners over substance. Though the infertile couple is written with sensitivity, the college-age couple is defined by canned youth jargon (especially the word ''punk''); the older parents hardly exist in the book at all. Miss Pearson is also fond of such plot contrivances as mixed-up lab reports, and, in Act II, the story runs out altogether. The last trimester for the mothers in ''Baby'' is as much of a waiting game as it can be in real life.
Yet David Shire, the composer, and Richard Maltby Jr., the lyricist, rush to the book's rescue by addressing the show's concerns with both humor and intelligence. Given the complexity of those issues - from genetic worries to the pain of delivery - it's surprising how airy the songs are: Even a topic as potentially didactic as a mother's choice between family and career is handled with a peppy tune and boomeranging lyric. A number called ''Fatherhood Blues,'' delivered by the men's weekend baseball team, may be the last word about the countervailing forces of levitating exhilaration and crushing panic that induce whiplash in incipient fathers.
The more sober songs are equally impressive. One in which the most mature couple evaluate their marriage's shortcomings is so eloquent about the vagaries of marital love that it lifts the characters above the banalities of their dialogue. The Act I finale, in which a fetus's first kick prompts the youngest mother to sing about ''the chain of life,'' is resolutely ungooey. ''I was young/ I didn't know that some things outlive me,'' sings Miss Callaway - and the simplicity of that universal discovery, wedded to cascading music, is what allows ''Baby'' to provide its share of goosebumps.
To keep up with the varied ages of the characters, Mr. Shire writes with sophistication over a range that embraces rock, jazz and the best of Broadway schmaltz. His music receives its full due from Jonathan Tunick's lithe, endlessly varied orchestrations and from a sizable onstage band conducted by Peter Howard. Mr. Maltby's lyrics are not just smart and funny, but often ingenious - as befits a lyricist who has a sideline inventing intricate crossword puzzles for Harper's magazine.
Mr. Maltby also doubles as the show's director. With the aid of some brief but clever choreography by Wayne Cilento, he at times achieves the limber spontaneity he brought to his staging of ''Ain't Misbehavin'.'' He also does a dexterous job of interweaving projected film animation into the action: As the mothers push toward D-day, we follow their intrauterine development to ultimately touching effect.
Even so, the production has its sloppy loose ends. The raspy sound system needs fixing, and so does the pleasant, pastel-colored fairy-tale set. The designer John Lee Beatty, who does so well by single-set plays, has once again run into trouble with moving scenery: ''Baby'' relies on a network of mobile circular curtains that, while eventually paying off in a shrewd final flourish, are otherwise too busy and noisy.
The cast, which includes a small band of chorus people, is led by the endearing Miss Callaway, a ragamuffin out of a Koren cartoon. Possessing a clarion voice and an ingenuous smile, she glows with the sensuality of a pregnant woman; when she takes to boogeying about in her sixth month, we're treated to what may be the most unlikely instance of sexy dancing ever seen in a Broadway musical. As her boyish stringbean of a partner, Mr. Graff could use toning down, but he's a prodigious song-and-dance man. Mr. Vidnovic, last seen in the revival of ''Brigadoon,'' and Miss Cox bring tenderness and old-time Broadway style to the nonexpectant couple. Miss Fowler is amusingly sardonic as the eldest mother, though Mr. Congdon is a shade too bland as her husband.
If the virtues of ''Baby'' can't override all its hitches, so be it. In achievement, this show is a throwback to the early 1960's - the last era when Broadway regularly produced some casual-spirited musicals that were not instantly categorizable as blockbusters or fiascos. Those musicals - like, say, ''Do Re Mi'' or ''110 in the Shade'' - weren't built for the ages but could brighten a theater season or two: They were ingratiatingly professional, had both lulls and peaks, and inspired you to run to the record store as soon as the original cast album came out. So it is with ''Baby,'' and wouldn't it be cheering if such a show could find a home on the do-or-die Broadway of today?