New Life for Old Canards
Light and fluffy, ‘Hello! My Baby’ is a pleasant stroll through classic tunes and familiar storylines
Those who believe that everything old should be new again will find the new musical “Hello! My Baby” to be a tonic. In true smorgasbord fashion, book writer Cheri Steinkellner, co-author of “Sister Act — The Musical,” has borrowed from everyone and anything to create something “original.” Well-known numbers from the early 20th century American songbook are dusted off and repackaged into a socially relevant love story with a gender swap straight out of Shakespeare and the kind of “Hey gang, let’s put on a show!” spirit that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would have applauded.
Staging a three-show encore at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre following its March-April run at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, this frisky and offense-free musical is good for quite a few smiles. Is “Hello! My Baby” “going places” like the brassy song-pluggers it follows? Perhaps, but only if there are audiences out there who appreciate things old-fashioned and feather-light.
Those same audiences will also need to subscribe to the show’s basic premise that numbers like “Oh, Johnny, Oh!” “Ain’t We Got Fun” and the oft-repeated title number are as timeless as Steinkellner and musical director Lloyd Cooper seem to think they are. And that dreams, can-do American chutzpah and ingenuity still count for something, even today when unemployment nationwide threatens to top 10 percent.
For a couple of hours, the illusion is certainly diverting. It’s easy to root for Mickey McKee (played by Ciaran McCarthy), the Irish immigrant who dreams of striking it rich by plugging (pitching) not other people’s songs but his own, and for Nelly Gold (Evie Hutton), the Jewish factory girl who disguises herself as a boy so that her songwriting and song-plugging will be taken seriously. We want them both to succeed and, of course, to make beautiful music together.
But it’s complicated. By becoming Ned O’Reilly, Nelly displaces Mickey as King of the Pluggers, making them rivals and potential partners. Chemistry is all well and good, but the fate of Nelly’s sisters, Frances (Jordan Kai Burnett) and Violet (McKenna Tedrick), and of all the residents of the Lower East Side tenement is at stake. The orphaned Golds have no money, and the Rockefeller-esque Tierneys own all the tenement buildings. They want the rent and aren’t above dispatching a neighborhood thug, Johnny Giovanni (Harley Jay), to collect it. Junior Tierney (Will Sevedge) and his sister, Alice (Lilli Babb), seem to have their priorities straighter than building magnate granddad Sanford (George Ball), but how much can a couple of kids do?
Plenty, in fact. Song-plugging — the hawking and selling of the next big hit — is the anticipated way out of all difficulties, at least for the non-blue-bloods. Irving Berlin did it, so why can’t Mickey and Nelly? The fact that Ned keeps horning in on Mickey’s action (and that Mickey never realizes Ned is Nelly) permits the musical to stretch to two hours instead of tapping out at about 70 minutes.
In the meantime, under Brian McDonald’s direction, people of all occupations and class levels are continuously breaking out into ballads or bouncy ensemble numbers. The “plug-off” between Mickey and Ned (using both Jewish and Irish influences) to the tune of Bob Carleton’s “Ja-Da” is a kick. It’s also one of the few instances where ex-“Cheers” barfly George Wendt — as Bert Coots, the henpecked patriarch of a song-licensing family — gets any significant stage time.
Tone-wise, Steinkellner’s musical walks the line between the youthful musical comedy of, say, a “Babes in Arms” and the social conscience that a period piece like this can’t really ignore. Hence, you’ve got the always earnest, reform-minded Frances Gold squaring off against a goofball hoodlum like Johnny Giovanni, who issues threats in rhyming couplets. Or Sevedge’s Junior Tierney, who is sweetly and very dopily in love with Frances until it’s time for him to get serious.
That “Hello! My Baby” is well-cast across the board helps. The aforementioned Jay and Sevedge are both comic scene-stealers. Hutton is probably closer to an alto than to the boy soprano, but she has plenty of pluck and a wistful air whenever she’s pining for Mickey. Whether she’s trousered or otherwise, she has us in her corner.
As does “Hello! My Baby,” dust, contradictions and all.
“Hello! My Baby” plays May 5 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. and May 6 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. $24-$75. (805) 963-0761. lobero.com.
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