What would it take to persuade you to drive 120 miles to see a play? Here's one (purely subjective) answer: the prospect of revisiting a fond memory.
Twenty-two years ago the musical Baby eked out a little-noticed six-month run on Broadway; 1984 was the fisticuff season in which Stephen Sondheim's meditative Sunday in the Park with George duked it out for the Tony Award with Jerry Herman's simplistic extravaganza La Cage Aux Folles. Not surprisingly, the Tony voters rewarded splash over substance. In the midst of that furor, hardly anyone paid much attention to a small, rambunctious treatise on the joys and perils of impending parenthood. Yet Baby was the surprise delight of the season.
In all these ensuing 22 years, I've never encountered another production. Could it be that audiences just don't want to hear clever songs about sperm counts and ovulation? Whatever the reason, I've not had another opportunity to confirm our original enthusiastic prognosis. So ever since Stephens College announced Baby as part of its current theater season, this foray out to Columbia has been much anticipated. Was memory playing tricks? Would the musical hold up after all these years?
It wasn't. And it did.
Set on a college campus, Baby spins its tale through the adventures of three couples. Danny and Lizzie (K.C. Comeaux, Erika Hardy) are student-age twentysomethings on the verge of maturity who have to decide if the arrival of a baby must also entail marriage. Nick and Pam (Ben Britton, Beth O'Bannon) are husky sports coaches -- Pam can best her husband in arm wrestling -- in their thirties who suffer humiliating indignities as they strive to conceive. Alan and Arlene (Robert Doyen, Gwen Wotawa) have seen their kids grow up and move out of the house; now Arlene's unexpected pregnancy forces them to re-examine a marriage that has grown quietly stale. None of this is lightweight material, nor is it treated glibly here -- though the episodic nature of three plots that only rarely intersect does sometimes hinder a smooth forward progression.
But it's not the dialogue that makes this show memorable; it's the songs by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire. How appropriate that one scene is set on a baseball diamond, because these melodies come hurling across the stage like fastballs in a batting cage. Tuneful songs, exuberantly infectious songs, songs as bouncy as the basketball Pam dribbles with dexterity. The gals get to kick up their heels (though one wonders if pregnant women really do wear two-and-a-half-inch heels) in "I Want It All," and the men tear up the stage in "Fatherhood Blues." The female ensemble cavorts its way through "The Ladies Singing Their Song," a sprightly ditty in which Lizzie is accosted by reminiscing mothers ("My first child popped out like a cork/The next they had to pry out with a fork...").
The Stephens College production is topnotch. As we've been reminded in recent weeks with the knockout A Piece of My Heart at Webster University and the stylish My Fair Lady at SLU, college productions often offer high value at low cost. So it is here. For starters, the black-box Warehouse Theater is a gem, with comfortable seats and clean sightlines. In a theater this small, it was surprising to find that the actors were miked. But it works well, and the five-piece orchestra never overwhelms the actors. Our only reservation concerned some of the staging, which is relentlessly determined to use every inch of playing space no matter how few people are onstage. After a while the constant circular motion not only calls attention to itself but begins to negate the advantage of black-box intimacy: the opportunity for stillness.
All six principles are appealing, and several are much more than that. Robert Doyen and Gwen Wotawa bring feeling and nuance to their portrayals of the elder couple. Doyen is especially impressive with his sensitively sung "Easier to Love," whose every rueful line is filled with keen observation.
But then, this entire evening is easy to love. People think nothing of driving out to Columbia for a football game. Why not a play? With Baby's 7:30 p.m. curtain, you can be home before midnight. You may find yourself humming all the way.