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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Chichester Festival Theater

By Clive Hirschhorn

  Lorna Loft/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The old cliche, "they don't write 'em like that anymore" applies- and then some! - to Babes in Arms, another crowd-pleaser from the resurgent Chichester Festival in England's picturesque West Sussex.

In one sense, at least, we should be grateful that they don't. For the book, originally written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1937, rewritten by George Oppenheimer and rewritten yet again by Martin Connor , is as creaky as the old barn in which a group of talented youngsters decide to put on their very own show.

In another sense, though, hearing its score makes you weep for the good old days when audiences left the theater humming the songs rather than the scenery.

Boasting a score that overflows with hits like "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady Is A Tramp," "Johnny One Note," "Where or When," "Way Out West" and "I Wish I Were In Love Again," Babes in Arms is a joyous reminder of the Broadway musical's golden age and the sad and sorry state it finds itself in right now.

With few exceptions, the musicals of the twenties and thirties were, basically, a springboard for some of the greatest popular songs ever written, and a showcase for the musical theater's most legendary stars - from Marilyn Miller to Ethel Merman, and Al Jolson to Fred Astaire. Plots were for plays, not musical comedy.

Babes in Arms , for example, is simple to the point of simple-mindedness: a group of kids whose parents are struggling to eke out a living in the dying years of vaudeville, and who are treading water en route to stardom by working backstage in a provincial Cape Cod theater, defy their producer by sabotaging a production of a ridiculous Deep South melodrama and putting on a musical of their own.

In the 1939 film version (greatly changed from the original), the juvenile leads were, of course, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

At Chichester, Mark McKee as Valentine and Donna Steele as Billie, while no Rooney and Garland, but in common with the rest of this predominantly youthful company, bring charm and zest to their roles, as do Matthew Hart and Kay Murphy, the obligatory comic light-relief who capture the zany comic shtick that passed for humour way back when.

And as Baby Rose, an erstwhile child star in the Shirley Temple template, Sophia Ragavelas, despite an unflattering moppet wig, is right on the money.

Of the older players, Lorna Luft as Baby Rose's Gypsy-like mother, is given two interpolated Rodgers and Hart numbers, "You Took Advantage of Me," and "When She Goes On Stage" (the latter originally written for Beatrice Lillie), which she belts out in true Garland fashion.

There is no question that Luft's presence in a show so closely associated with her more famous mother has an eerie symmetery to it. What must she be thinking backstage when she hears such numbers as "I Wish I Were in Love Again" and "Johnny One Note" - both of which Garland made her own in Words and Music, the 1948 biopic of Rodgers and Hart? The real stars of this revival, though, are its director, Martin Connor, its conductor, Mark Warman and its choreographer, Bill Deamer.

If Connor provides pace and excitement, Warman the tap-tap tempo of the thirties, Deamer sets the pulse racing with some exuberant dance routines, including the title number that closes the first half, and a rip-roaring "Johnny One Note" that closes the show.

Favouring high kicks and horse kicks, Deamer has drilled his talented company until they resemble a team of crack Broadway troupers. There's no


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