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VALLEY WEEKEND

Blissful Tone Detracts From Hard Issues in 'Baby'

Strong voices and musical direction inject energy into the low-impact story of three couples coping with trials of procreation.

February 08, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Ensemble Stage Company, which is becoming a regular guest at the Victory Theatre, seems to be big on couples--married and unmarried. First was its fair-to-middling revival of the marriage farce, "Run for Your Wife." Now comes its slightly better-than-middling revival of the David Shire-Richard Maltby musical, "Baby."

The formerly Seattle-based group (look for the occasional Mariners cap and University of Washington T-shirt that pops up in the costuming) is mostly young and peppy, so it's just right for Maltby-Shire, musical theater's light and peppy duo.

Their music and lyrics, always relentlessly bourgeois and on the bland pop side, pull Sybille Pearson's book over the predictable hills of minor dramatic tension and into the happy valley of blissfully expectant and satisfied couples. Musicals don't come much more low-cal, low-impact or low-demand than this.

It's a little amazing how "Baby" doesn't stick with you afterward, despite the efforts of director Michael Kelley's cast and despite the show raising such issues as out-of-wedlock pregnancy, low sperm counts and female independence.

The music and tone desperately want us to sit back and enjoy, easy listening-style, but that totally undercuts the story's tougher emotions. If Maltby-Shire had done "Miss Saigon," the Vietnam War would have ended up feeling like a weekend warrior bout with paint guns.

We're presented with three couples of different ages and situations. Lizzie and Danny (Julie Dixon and Erich Von Heeder) are unmarried college juniors, and she wants the baby without marriage. Pam and Nick (Dana Reynolds and Brian Lee Bittker) are late-20s marrieds whose desire for a baby is thwarted by Nick's "shooting blanks" sperm. Alan and Arlene (Christopher Lowryand Karen Forest) already have grown kids, and a baby isn't what they had in mind.

*

Back and forth we go from one pair to the next, interspersed with odd little scenes of local college life and funny breaks by a nimble supporting ensemble. The complications grow, but they never feel serious (even if they sound that way).

Arlene panics that she'll never have a romantic time alone with the romantically challenged Alan; Lizzie wonders if Danny will stray when he's on tour as keyboardist for a "spastic punk band;" Pam wonders if a kid is worth the arduous pre-lovemaking rituals they have to go through to maximize fertility.

All of it turns out OK in the end, but the happy music mood never makes us doubt otherwise. What remains are some solid musical turns, such as the company's strong treatment of "Baby, Baby, Baby," funny comic tomfoolery with "The Ladies Singing Their Song," and Dixon blowing out all the stops for the Act I finale, "The Story Goes On."

Bittker, Dixon and Von Heeder dominate vocally, which isn't the ideal in an ensemble show, but there are no weak voices either.

And though Dixon and Forest seem a little old for their characters' respective ages, they play the musical scenes, like their colleagues, as actors first. With an ultra-minimal set of a curtain and a moving bed, and Roger Kelley's modest and supportive musical direction (on tape), there is nothing to distract from the cast, which injects some blood and sweat into a truly vanilla affair.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Baby."

* WHERE: Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 24.

* HOW MUCH: $19-$22.

* CALL: (818) 445-7529.

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