Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Bringing Up "Baby"

By Dalt Wonk

JUNE 8, 1998:  Baby, an offbeat musical that was recently given an accomplished production at Rivertown Rep, begins with a slide show in which the human reproductive system is likened to a beach party. The egg goes for a dip in the sea, and groovy spermatozoa grab their surfboards and give chase.

This opening sequence sets the tone for an evening that might be called conventionally unconventional.

There is, on the one hand, something fresh and appealing about a musical that starts with a slide show and follows three stories linked by a common theme rather than a common plot.

On the other hand, the cute, joshing opening visuals -- which could have been lifted from a television ad campaign for Viagra -- assure the audience that the play's context will be as comfortable, homey and uplifting as the blue-and-pink playbill suggests.

There are, inevitably, many clever lyrics about the little joys and fears of imminent parenthood. But the trio of couples who are shown awaiting the "blessed event" are not quite what one would have expected. And because of this, a curious bittersweet mood floats in at times amid the compulsory allusions to morning sickness and the dietary aberrations of mothers-to-be.

Robert Self's simple but attractive set is dominated by a high wall that serves both as backdrop and bandstand. This structure, it turns out, functions like the filing cabinet of some mysterious, bureaucratic Destiny -- the great Registrar's Office in the Sky, perhaps, because the protagonists all are connected to an unnamed Northern University.

There are three drawers in this giant filing cabinet, and they might be labeled "O" for "Oldies," "Y" for "Youth" and "J" for "Jocks." The drawers open throughout the play, bringing us a couple, their bed and the next installment of their dilemma.

The "Youth" are Lizzie (Kerry Lynn Mendelson, a singing standout) and Danny (Gary Rucker), impecunious Generation Xers sharing a basement apartment in their junior year of college. Danny, although he is a musician and anything but a "square," reacts to the news that Lizzie is pregnant by suggesting they get married. Lizzie, a staunchly independent young woman, sees "matrimony" as an insidious imposition of roles, the beginning of the end. "Next step, credit cards!" she remarks with horror. Nonetheless, Danny wants to be a responsible daddy, and in order to earn some badly needed cash, he swallows his pride and goes on tour with a "spastic ripoff punk band" called the Magnets.

The "Oldies" are Arlene (Terri Gervais) and Alan (Ken Risch). They are in their 40s and, now that their three daughters have grown and gone away, they inhabit the archetypical empty nest -- a large home that seems "to get bigger all the time." To Alan, at least, for he always has found it easier to be a father than a lover. He is thrilled by the shocking news that Arlene is pregnant and grows visibly happier and more youthful as he contemplates a second family -- until he realizes his wife does not share his enthusiasm. She had hoped they would change their lives, get a small apartment and discover an intimacy they had avoided.


Kerry Mendelson and Gary Rucker are one of three couples waiting on a BABY.
It is in the company of Arlene and Alan that we get caught off-guard, surprised and moved by their dilemma, with its hint of the irreconcilable in human life.

The "Jocks" are Pam (Tracey E. Collins) and Nick (James Murphy), the most idiosyncratic of couples. A life-size cut-out figure of Michael Jordan hovers over their bed. Pam likes to carry a basketball around with her, and Nick, who does the cooking, is forever wearing a referee's whistle around his neck. Pam's long-awaited pregnancy turns out to have been a clinical mistake, however. And for most of the play, they struggle with a disheartening regime of prescribed sex that is meant to increase the chances of conception.

There is something middling -- a feeling of "not quite" -- about this script. In some way, it seems to hang back from its own potential, as though afraid of venturing into the dreaded hinterlands of the non-commercial. But it also has charm and originality.

Under Fred Nuccio's direction, the cast was a strong, well-matched ensemble that performed with confident and convincing professionalism. Flo Presti directed the music.


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