GARLAND WRIGHT HAS left the Guthrie--almost. After nine years as artistic director, Wright's departure for a position at the Juilliard School has taken on the protracted fanfare of an athlete's final season: fawning magazine features, in-depth interviews, mutual praise between man and municipality--everything except a retired jersey hung from the rafters. While a retrospective evaluation of Wright's tenure might be in order, the director has done his part to stymie such impulses with his curious swan song: The Rodgers and Hart musical extravaganza Babes in Arms. I like to imagine, for no particular reason, Wright damning his detractors to the last moment, muttering backstage with Nixonian self-indulgence, They won't have Garland Wright to kick around anymore. For at the same time as Joe Dowling arrives from Ireland like a benevolent caudillo, promising accessible, populist art for the wary citizenry, Wright proffers his own determined crowd-pleaser as a parting gift. And like a departing dictator he has sacked the coffers to do it.
Babes in Arms begins in Depression-era New York. Billy Valentine (James Ludwig), a songwriting Wisconsin rube, has his pockets picked clean by the tomboyish Bobbie (Erin Dilly) and a gaggle of homeless kids. Valentine follows them back to the abandoned theater where they live under the loose guidance of an old tap dance man. As if by taxonomy, each of the kids is pegged with a single trait: One is fat, one is strong, one is smart, one is foreign. One tap dances. Two are identical twins. So, too, there must be a comic foil to the love affair between the blandly affectionate leads--in this case a domineering choreographer and his flirtatious dance partner, played by Kevin Cahoon and Kristin Chenoweth. (Nearly all these actors have the prodigious and generic talent of future Broadway successes; none has been seen here before, nor will be again.) When a scheming millionaire threatens to foreclose on their happy home, the group must display all kinds of pluck and twice as much heart to raise the rent. Thus creating the cliché: Hey kids, we're putting on a show!
Just like the dastardly mogul with designs on the dilapidated theater, Wright and associates have torched the unseemly Babes in Arms book to its barest skeleton, then raided the fire sale on Rodgers and Hart's back catalogue for supplementary songs. A familiar trick by now. But however formulaic, writer Ken LaZebnik has done a masterful job rebuilding the script from the ground up. "Making themes into a script," the program states, "requires a million decisions." In this case, it also requires a million dollars, or more accurately, two.
There is much magic is on display in Babes in Arms, and practically all of it involves this oft-cited price tag. Oversized illumined letters, functional cars, and a 15-foot golden eagle do cameos of mere seconds. Handsome backdrops roll and unroll. Mirrored staircases revolve. Dancers throw hoops, bounce balls, hoof with unflagging energy. They wear ruffles, sequins, stars-and-stripes. Show stopper turns to show stopper turns to show stopper. It is all so overwhelming...
Garland Wright seems determined to reveal visiting national productions for the mediocre carpetbaggers they are; indeed, the financiers of Babes have made no secret of their ambitions to Broadway, where the cast will be replaced by Alyssa Milano and Gary Coleman. However, a review in the Star Tribune accused the production of sacrificing "heart" for "sensation," while "threatening [to] smother the very soul of the show." I'll have none of that nonsense; since when has the Strib gotten so high-handed about giving the public what it wants? In most musicals, heart and sensation are one and the same, and this show never had a soul (that it now has half a brain is miracle enough!) We critics have a puritanical streak: We want the audience alongside us on the grim nights in the empty houses, shivering alongside the actors' parents. Over the years Garland Wright has made the audience earn their entertainment the hard way and now he's let us off easy. We wish him well.
It's ironic that the excesses of the Guthrie have robbed the Cricket Theatre's unornamented Gospel in Blues Time of column space. In brief, then: prominent local vocalists Doris Hines, Thelma Buckner, and Louella Pittman (whose average age is in the 60s) play themselves, reciting a script of doctored interviews about music and personal history. Hines performed with numerous jazz greats; the other two, sisters, grew up singing His word, leaving the fields of Mississippi behind. The stories are interesting; the singing, swell. That they speak to each other instead of directly to the audience is, at best, awkward. The premise behind this contrivance is that the women are, you guessed it, putting on their own show. Last week the Cricket announced it will stage two fewer shows than scheduled, due to fiscal constraints. Where are two million dollars when you need them? CP
Babes in Arms runs through March 31; call 377-2224 for tickets.Gospel in Blues Time runs through March 10; call 337-0747 or 224-1428 for tickets.