November 16, 2021
Off-Broadway Review: 'Baby'
Matthew Wexler READ TIME: 4 MIN.
At the end of Act I of Out of the Box Theatrics' reimagining of the Tony-nominated musical "Baby," Lizzie (Elizabeth Flemming), who is 20 and pregnant, sees the chain of motherhood extending, singing with mighty lungs, "And thus it is our story goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on!" It's not a metaphor.
The production, first staged in the fall of 2019 in a midtown Manhattan loft, has moved to Theatrelab's more conventional space, though still only capable of accommodating a large Thanksgiving gathering if you had a house in the suburbs or college town, such as the eldest couple in this trio of potential parents, Arlene (Julia Murney) and Alan (Robert H. Fowler). They're joined in song and scenes by Lizzie's boyfriend, Danny (Johnny Link) and a lesbian couple Nicki (Jamila Sabares-Klemm) and Pam (Danielle Summons).
Featuring music and lyrics by David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr., respectively, and a book by Sybille Pearson, the 1983 chamber musical has served as ripe pickings for cabaret set lists and audition material for singer-actors hungry for character-driven melodies. But the book hadn't aged well over the decades until its authors revisited the work with director-choregrapher and Out of the Box's associate artistic director Ethan Paulini. The result is an earnest but long-winded re-examination of how we define family in the 21st century.
Danny and Lizzie's story remains relatively intact with the additional perspective of the theater company's commitment to "lifting the voices of marginalized communities through the stories we tell." In this case, Danny is now deaf and Lizzie blind. The 20-year-olds met at a college support group because their "woke" college wanted to be more "inclusive of disabilities." The same can be said for the production, which doesn't re-center the narrative on Deafness or Blindness but allows those circumstances to exist as they do in the actors' real lives. The adjustment is both simple and profound, a reminder that any musical currently running on Broadway could make such an effort.
The second couple, Nicki and Pam, are now portrayed as an interracial lesbian couple desperate to have a baby. Their journey includes hormone injections and in vitro fertilization, resulting in an emotional toll on both women that nearly ends their relationship. Arlene and Alan also find themselves on rocky ground after discovering that a weekend away to rekindle their relationship not only lit a fire but put a bun in the oven.
Though the ingredients have the potential to grow "Baby" into a modern chamber musical, Paulini is unable to fine-tune the production's style to fit the intimate space or subject matter. Awkwardly staged in a white room with the band on one side and audience members facing one another galley-style, actors are too often asked to gaze forlornly into the distance, which might work for Mother Abbess in an amphitheater production of "The Sound of Music" but looks here looks like bird-watching. A three-person ensemble (Jorge Donoso, Marisa Kirby, and Jewell Noel), tasked with moving the sole piece of furniture – a sectional couch – in various configurations, ramps up the wide-eyed earnestness and Paulini's unnecessarily flashy choreographed gesticulations.
What makes these awkward moments sting even more is their juxtaposition to the show's natural intimacy. Murney, in particular, who once soared above Oz as Elphaba in "Wicked," earns her name above the program title. Dry-humored in one moment and achingly vulnerable in the next, Murney dives to emotional depths when she sings of the patterns in her life that have brought her to the point of self-reckoning.
But too much gets in the way of such performance highlights beyond the center pole in the middle of the performance space. Unplugging the band and trimming the new book could give these refreshed couples more forward momentum, allowing "Baby" to not only grow up and move out of the house but really go places.
Out of the Box Theatrics at Theaterlab
357 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor, NYC
Through December 12, 2021