Tuneful, not cutesy, views of pregnancy

Posted: November 02, 2001

In 1991, a Cherry Hill-based group calling itself Assuredly Fine Productions, which specialized in children's theater, moved into the adult realm by presenting the musical Baby at Society Hill Playhouse.

Renamed the Living Arts Repertory Theatre, the troupe then returned to South Jersey and began to stage full seasons at the Westmont Theatre in Camden County. To reflect its location, the troupe changed its name a couple of years later to the Westmont Theatre Company.

The company has moved again to become the resident theater of the South Jersey Performing Arts Center located in the Tweeter Center on the Camden waterfront. The troupe is presenting works in the center's new studio theater, a venue that can seat up to 145.

For its and the studio's first show, the company has turned again to Baby. The musical was a good choice a decade ago, and it remains so today. With music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and book by Sybille Pearson, the musical had only a short run on Broadway in the 1980s. When I reviewed the 1991 production in Philadelphia, I noted it deserved a wider audience, and as this is the only presentation to appear locally since then, I'll say it again.

As you may have guessed (and feared), Baby is indeed about having a baby, but it doesn't approach the subject with the cutesy sentimentality childbirth so often receives. Pearson's intelligent script presents three credible couples - two having a baby and one trying to do so - and succeeds in a human way to present the problems that pregnancy can create.

The couples are a pair of young college students for whom a child means an introduction to responsibility and accountability; a young married couple who have unconsciously made the baby the basis of a happy marriage and therefore enter into strenuous - and to the audience, humorous - efforts to conceive; and a middle-aged couple with grown children whose unplanned pregnancy forces them to rethink their relationship.

While the book propels the show through its many brief scenes, Shire's music and Maltby's lyrics enhance and deepen the result. You don't come out of the theater humming any of the songs, but you feel you've heard a score that is uncommonly appropriate to the musical's story and purpose.

The Westmont Theatre Company is professional in that it pays its performers, but artistic director Bill Esher, who has headed it from the start, has chosen not to affiliate the troupe with Actors Equity, the professional actors union, so his shows are cast with semiprofessionals.

Within that context, this production, also directed by Esher, works well. The performers generally do a good job of creating sympathetic characters. You feel the connection of the couples as lovers, and you understand their feelings in each situation. Get that right and, even if some of the singing could be better and some of the acting more polished, this neglected little musical is worth a look.

Douglas J. Keating's e-mail address is dkeating@phillynews.com.

Baby

Music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., book by Sybille Pearson, directed by Bill Esher, musical direction by John Richardson, lighting by Martin Stutzman. Presented by Westmont Theatre Company.

The cast: Antoinette DiPietropolo (Lizzy), Drew Eberly (Danny), Lois Carr (Arlene), Felipe Javier (Alan), Lisa Kain Marcelli (Pam), Paul McElwee (Nick). Also, Nicole Clulee Cutter, Joan Alexander, Barb Matousch, Missy O'Brien.

Playing at: Studio Theatre at the Tweeter Center, 1 Harbour Boulevard, Camden, through Nov. 10. Tickets are $15 and $17.50. Information: 856-342-6633.

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