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THEATER REVIEW 'BABY' : A Crying Shame : The musical never makes it out of the crib, despite some valiant efforts by the performers.

July 11, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Contemporary parenthood may present a bewildering and even ambivalent prospect, but you'd never know it from the sanitized diapers in which PCPA Theaterfest's "Baby" swaddles the miracle of childbirth. The only miracle here is that this innocuous but consistently unmemorable musical actually became a 1983 Tony contender.

It's a true lullaby of Broadway, guaranteed to soothe the raw edges in a fundamental life transition with the balm of upbeat if simple-minded charm. Only problem is, depth gets tossed out with the bathwater.

You can leave the Tonka Toys at home--no infants grace the stage in this "Baby." It's an adult musical that traces the repercussions of pregnancy for three modern couples, each representing a different stage in life.

First there's the pair of young graduate students (Constance Doolan and John Patrick Langs) facing the unexpected consequence of their romance. Danny wants to do the right thing--marry and set up a household--but Lizzie petulantly proclaims that "marriage is an antisocial act no one survives."

At the other extreme we find a mature couple (Teresa Thuman and Michael Fitzpatrick) who thought they'd shipped their last child off to college but now find their dreams of snuggling together in tranquil retirement threatened by a late arrival.

And in-between are the thirtysomethings--Pam (Karen Barbour) and Nick (Joel Goldes)--whose desire for a child turns to desperation when Pam's pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm.

Except for two brief interactions, the couples' stories never really connect but play off each other to show the various ways in which these people confront their new challenges and responsibilities, no less a venture into uncharted territory for the parent than for the child. Director Brad Carroll has admirably achieved his goal of instant identification here. The turf is familiar enough to evoke plenty of knowing winks and nudges from any parent in the audience.

But recognition is not insight. A mature work of theater not only depicts experience, it explores more than its surface dimensions. In this regard, "Baby" never makes it out of the crib, despite some valiant efforts by the performers (Thuman, Barbour and Goldes in particular) to rise above formulaic construction reminiscent of TV sitcoms.

"Baby" rather smugly takes the correctness of parenthood--and its entire underlying substructure of social convention--so unquestioningly for granted that other options become nothing more than eccentric subjects for parody. Lizzie may scoff at the traditional family structure, but we just know she'll come around if Danny gives her enough flowers; Danny may go on tour with a heavy-metal punk band, but it's only a money gig. We know he'd rather be playing something nice.

Besides glossing over the sharp edges, there's a none-too-subtle tyranny to "Baby's" satire as well--Nick and Pam will never be more than objects of pitiable derision unless they manage to validate their lives by procreating. Never considered is the possibility that they might accomplish something valuable in another way, much less that having children may not necessarily be the appropriate choice for everyone.

"Baby" disappoints in another way. A traditional musical should have plenty of spectacle and snappy, memorable show tunes. This is a modern (i.e., cost-contained) concept vehicle played out on a minimal stage, with the action revolving around a revolving bed, the major prop in Norm Spencer's scene design. The lack of visual distraction only heightens awareness of Sybille Pearson's flimsy book.

In classic musicals, songs allowed characters to voice feelings and insights that couldn't be expressed any other way, a unique form of self-revelation. By comparison, "Baby's" songs (by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr.) play like encounter group platitudes set to a pastiche of contemporary styles.

This is one "Baby" only a parent could love.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Baby" will be performed through Sept. 16 at the Solvang Festival Theatre in Solvang at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 4, 8, 17, 20 and 23, and Sept. 11, 15 and 16. Ticket prices are $17 and $15 Friday and Saturday evenings and $16 and $13 Sunday through Thursday evenings. Call (800) 221-9469 for reservations or further information.

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