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THEATER | REVIEW

Such a funny little valentine

A Reprise! presentation of the love letter to the stage 'Babes in Arms' offers some strong performances that help make up for the dated and shallow script.

September 12, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

"Babes in Arms" feels like two different and sometimes clashing shows.

The score features such indelible Rodgers and Hart songs as the soulful "Where or When" and "My Funny Valentine," the witty "I Wish I Were in Love Again" and "The Lady Is a Tramp," and the classic novelty song "Johnny One Note."

But the book for the current Reprise! revival at Freud Playhouse is insipid -- and not in an especially tongue-in-cheek way. The characters are so thinly drawn that they hardly seem worthy of "Where or When" and "My Funny Valentine," in particular.

And this is the supposedly improved and less dated book, a 1959 revision by George Oppenheimer of the original 1937 script by Rodgers and Hart.

In this version, a group of budding young thespians -- who work together in a low-budget summer-stock theater -- have been rehearsing their own revue after-hours. The theater manager (Steve Vinovich) had offered them a chance to present it for the public, but he changes his mind in order to extend a dreadful new play.

Meanwhile, the leader of the "babes" and composer of the revue, Valentine White (Joey McIntyre), is torn between the trouper who really loves him (Bets Malone) and the former child movie star (Jenna Leigh Green) who is making her stage debut in the theater's current production.

Then there's the daughter (Jodi Benson) of the theater manager's late partner. She's running out of her share of money to help keep the struggling theater going.

But if only the young Broadway producer (Rick D. Wasserman), who's secretly the brother of one of the "babes," can see their revue, maybe he can save the day.

This version doesn't mention the original script's plot twist in which the kids are destined for a work farm if their show isn't successful. The characters' names are almost completely different from those in the original as well, so anyone who hopes to see a genuine reprise of the 1937 show might be disappointed by the Reprise! edition.

Of course, groups like Reprise! often choose between fidelity to the original and loyalty to contemporary tastes. It's hard to know if the "Babes in Arms" choice was smart without seeing the alternative.

Glenn Casale's staging features some strong performances. Bets Malone's resonant voice begins to suggest the haunting quality of the songs. Beth Malone (no relation to Bets Malone) and Jeffrey Schechter, as the young second-banana couple, provide a rousing dose of youthful energy as they sing and dance "I Wish I Were in Love Again." Benson pulls off "Johnny One Note."

McIntyre, formerly one of the New Kids on the Block, is well cast as Valentine, the leader of the new kids in the theater, with a serviceable voice and a nice-guy quality. But his looks aren't unconventional enough to match the description of his character in "My Funny Valentine," and he and Green can't make their cardboard characters sing "Where or When" with as much conviction as the song deserves.

Not that the entire score is a triumph -- the title song is lame. But musical director Gerald Sternbach's band, perched atop an all-purpose barnyard set, brings consummate professionalism to the task at hand.

*

'Babes in Arms'

Where: Freud Playhouse, northeast corner of UCLA,

near Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.;

Sundays, 7 p.m.

Ends: Sept. 21

Price: $60-$65

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Jodi Benson...Bunny Byron

Joey McIntyre...Valentine White

Ruta Lee...Phyllis Owen

Tom Beyer...Lee Calhoun

Jenna Leigh Green...Jennifer Owen

Beth Malone...Terry Thompson

Bets Malone...Susie Ward

Jeffrey Schechter...Gus Field

Steve Vinovich...Seymour Fleming

Rick D. Wasserman...Steve Edwards

Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Lorenz Hart. Book by George Oppenheimer, based on the original by Rodgers and Hart. Directed by Glenn Casale. Choreographed by Dan Mojica. Musical director Gerald Sternbach. Sets by Evan A. Bartoletti. Costumes by Alayna Miller. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Sound by Philip G. Allen. Orchestrations by Don Walker. Dance arrangements by Peter Howard. Stage manager Stephanie Coltrin Meyer

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