December is usually a bad time for the performing arts in Houston, mostly because theaters are desperate to cash in on the holidays. Thinking that folks won't buy tickets to anything that's not somehow associated with Scrooge or Santa or religion, producers end up offering the sort candied nonsense that's as ubiquitous -- and as satisfying -- as a hunk of fruitcake.
Thankfully, the brave folks at Stages Repertory Theatre are bucking the trend. The charming Baby: A Musical, by Sybille Pearson, David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., is a rich little musical about three couples dealing with the ups and downs of pregnancy in our modern world. The complex story is a welcome, if surprising, choice in the holiday lineup, for it is about ordinary characters dealing with difficult problems that lead to un-holiday-like emotions -- namely loss, disappointment and, most of all, the frailty at the tender center of the human heart.
The story takes place in a small college town where life ought to be easygoing. But babies have a way of changing everything, even if you're as young and fiercely independent as Lizzie (Ivy Castle) and Danny (Doug Thompson). Still undergrads, the couple live together in youthful bliss, thinking marriage is an institution their love doesn't need. But when Lizzie finds out she's pregnant, Danny's world starts to shift. He wants to be a musician but worries that he can't support a family, so he decides he needs to sacrifice some of his dreams for his partner and future child. Lizzie, on the other hand, wants everything to stay the same. She spends her time trying to figure out how she's going to schedule the baby's life into theirs, figuring the baby should adapt to them, not the other way around.
Older and wiser, college coaches Nick (Illich Guardiola) and Pam (Joanne Bonasso) are more than ready to sacrifice for parenthood. In fact, Pam sings with hysterical enthusiasm about all the dreaded terrors of pregnancy that she longs to experience, including morning sickness, in "I Want It All." Their story takes on a darker tone when Nick learns that he's "shooting duds." The stud-muffin coach feels completely unmanned by his own body. And it doesn't matter that his wife still adores him despite his sperm count.
Perhaps the most poignant and original story belongs to older couple Alan (Jimmy Phillips) and Arlene (Chesley Santoro), who know all too well that Lizzie's girlish ideas about parenthood are the stuff of youthful fantasy. Well into their forties, Alan and his wife have just sent their third daughter off to college. And Arlene is ready to sit back and enjoy her husband's company, discover new interests and find herself in middle age. When she suddenly turns up pregnant, she realizes that she could lose everything she's been waiting for, and she's not certain she wants this fourth child. Her husband, on the other hand, is thrilled with the pregnancy. At one point, he admits in song that it's "Easier to Love" one's children than one's spouse. Arlene, however, sings about feeling trapped by motherhood in a haunting tune called "Patterns."
As lovely as this show is, director Roy Hamlin has made it harder to like than it should be. One of his oddest choices has to do with all the unnecessary choreography -- many of these songs would work better if the actors weren't moving through odd bits of dancelike moves. The casting is also a bit of a head-scratcher. Guardiola, one of Houston's most elegant actors, sings beautifully but never finds the center of his muscled-up character. He often seems adrift when his character is trying to hide his emotions from his wife. And Bonasso, who's always a pleasure to watch on stage, is simply too girly to make her Pam believable when she claims to have always been a tomboy.
Also, vocally, some of these performers seem uncomfortable in their roles. Santoro's voice is especially stretched beyond its limits by the demands of this score. And while Castle has a lovely voice that find its center in Act II (she brings down the house with her terrific "The Ladies Singing Their Song"), she sounds somewhat strained and uncomfortable in the first half of the show.
The technical aspects of this production generally do it more harm than good. Tom Boyd's set is a clumsy collection of pieces that simply take too long to move about, especially given the fact that they aren't all that interesting to look at. And Claremarie Verheyen's costumes are most notable for how completely unflattering they are.
Still, the musical's stories are so compelling that even a troubled production is a worthwhile effort. And truthfully, this show is so full of heart and soul that it captures the essence of the season better than most of the silliness frothing out of theaters this time of year.
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