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Babes in Arms - Chichester 2007 (Review)

Babes in Arms, Chichester Festival

Review by David Munro

THE original version of the musical Babes In Arms, now to be seen in Chichester, was written in 1937 when Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were at the height of their powers and popularity.

What you will see in Chichester is an updated version of Rodgers and Hart’s original book, written by George Oppenheimer and adapted by the director Martin Connor, which while utilising most of the original songs incorporates a lot more songs from other shows.

Rodgers and Hart got the idea for a musical about children making their way in the adult world when they saw a group of children playing in the park, inventing their own games and rules, and they wondered what would happen if the children were suddenly given adult responsibilities, such as having to make a living. One way might be to put on a big benefit show – so Babes In Arms was born.

As with a lot of Rodgers and Hart musicals, the show has never had a professional production in the West End although some years ago it was given an airing at The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park and, last year, it was featured at the Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre, directed by Martin Connor, who returns for this production at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

This is a little hard to understand; it’s a bright and amusing show, as this production in Chichester emphatically proves, but I suppose in the 30s a cast of young people with no real outstanding star part did not appeal to the comedian dominated London musical theatre of the period.

The original American production was cast with almost unknown young performers (including a certain Alfred Drake, who sang the title song a few years before he introduced the title songs of Oklahoma and Kiss Me Kate) and ran for over 200 performances.

Even in the States, it is infrequently done despite its sparkling score and the “standards” such as I Wish I Were in Love Again, The Lady Is A Tramp, My Funny Valentine, Johnny One Note and Where or When.

MGM made a film of the show with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney which threw out most of the score and plot and added a whole lot of new songs. I mention this merely as Miss Garland’s (or should I say Mrs Sydney Luft’s) daughter, Lorna, is appearing in the Chichester production playing the oppressive mother of a child star – that’s showbusiness for you!

In the original, the “babes” are children of Vaudeville performers who, to save themselves from being sent to a work farm whilst their parents are on tour, produce a musical revue which enables them to open their own youth centre.

In the current version, whilst they (or rather some) are still children of Vaudeville performers, they are backstage workers and small part bit players at a summer theatre who are discontented with their lot and the plays they perform and decide to put on a revue to get themselves known.

They are assisted by an ex “baby” film star and frustrated by the owner of the theatre, the author of the play and the starlet’s mother.

In the end, after a lot of beautifully choreographed and executed Rodgers and Hart numbers, all turns out for the best.

Ignoring the plot (which is easily done), the show is to be remembered by its talented cast and Bill Dearmers’s outstanding choreography which sweeps the audience along with its verve and gusto – every number is too short and one longs for just a little bit more which, to me, is the essence of a good show.

Of course, a choreographer is only as good as his performers and he is well served by those at Chichester. Mathew Hart and Kay Murphy, in the soubrette/comedian roles, throw each other about the stage in one number after another; each one more inventive than the one before.

They are very funny and they sing well too, pointing each number just right. A quartet tap dancing routine by Ashley Day, Darren J Fawthrop, Charles Ruhrmund and the lead Mark McGee nearly had the audience dancing in the aisles with them.

This number was, in the original version, a speciality number for the Nicholas Brothers, then entitled All Dark People (Are Light On Their Feet), which is presumably not PC as the lyric now reads all dancers are light on their feet – nonetheless, it’s still a very good number and was, as I have said, excitingly performed.

The female lead Billie (sic) was played with her usual charm and aplomb by Donna Steele (whom I remember with affection from Thoroughly Modern Millie and Once Upon a Mattress).

Her range has increased and her rendering of the old warhorse The Lady Is A Tramp was beyond praise. She could perhaps show a little more tenderness in some of her numbers, in particular You’re Nearer, in which she was inclined to belt out her lines – but this is a niggle. Overall, it was a very funny, warm and likeable performance.

As was that of Mark McGee as the eponymous Valentine of the My Funny Valentine number (incidentally, beautifully sung by Donna Steele). He made a very good pair with Miss Steele and their numbers together came over as warm and sincere.

Sophia Ragavelas, as the “starlet”, tore into her numbers like the star she was supposed to be and brought the house down in the final number with her rendition of Johnny One Note leading the rest of the cast into the finale.

Her mother, as I have noted, is played by Lorna Luft in a part that appeared to be audition material for the part of Rose in Gypsy. She has two good numbers which she belts out in the tradition of a good trooper but she was unable to make much of her part which, in my opinion, was unplayable as written.

She made a valiant effort to avoid the caricature pitfalls of it and one wished she could have been given the material she deserved.

Rolf Saxon did what he could with the part of Seymour Fleming, the theatre owner with a penchant for malapropisms, as did Joseph Wicks, as Lee Calhoun, the author of the terrible play within a play.

It would take up too much space to name the rest of the talented cast so I will praise them collectively – their singing and dancing were truly magnificent.

In short, this is one of the best musicals going around this season. Forget your million pound effects at Drury Lane – go to Chichester and see what pleasure a well staged, danced and sung show on a virtually empty stage can give you and you’ll realise what musical theatre is all about – enjoyment!

Babes In Arms Book by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, adapted by George Oppenheimer and Martin Connor.
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart.
Music by – Richard Rodgers.
Director – Martin Connor.
Choreographer – Bill Deamer.
Musical Director – Mark Warman.
Designer – Hugh Durrant.
Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan.

CAST: Mark Mcgee; Matthew Hart; Joseph Wicks; Rolf Saxon; Tony Jackson; Oliver Tydman; Philip Catchpole; Ashley Day; Joseph Prouse; Charles Ruhrmund; Darren J. Fawthrop; Graham Newell; Gary Murphy; Donna Steele; Kay Murphy; Sophia Ragavelas; Lorna Luft; Catherine Terry; Stephanie Bron; Michelle Francis; Karen Aspinall; Kylie Anne Cruikshanks.

Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.
May 29 – July 7, 2007.
Evenings: 7.30pm/Mat. Weds or Thurs. & Sat: 2pm
Box Office: 01234 781312

  1. Absolutely spot on! As well as the talent, the enthusiasm of the cast shone through (Matthew Hart could have been slightly less camp, though) Ashley Day, leading the tap routine, was superb, but no-one should really be singled out – it was a stunning ensemble effort. As the reviewer says, it’s exactly what musical theatre is all about, and the Chichester musical is always something to look forward to.

    Brian Baker    Jun 28    #
  2. What a great production – I so wanna see them bring it to West End!
    And the talented mr. Matthew Hart was suberb – and at all too camp!

    Thomas O'Mally    Jul 13    #