BWW Reviews: Dinner and a Show - Shank's Tavern and BABY at Susquehanna Stage Co in Marietta
Marietta is one of the most charming towns in Central Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River runs past Nineteenth Century houses, trees, and various things historic, while the town itself is a walking tour of architectural delights. Two of those are found in Shank's Tavern and the building housing Susquehanna Stage Company, both Marietta institutions. Shank's Tavern, which boasts the reputation of being Lancaster County's longest-running tavern, has been housed in its brick home near the water since 1814, and operated even during Prohibition, with help from the occasional blind eye to its business. Susquehanna Stage Co. is located in its own historic building behind another historic building on Main Street. (Somehow you can't talk about Marietta without that adjective "historic" cropping up.)
People love to go out to eat before a show in this region as well as everywhere else, and Shank's Tavern is only a few minutes from Susquehanna Stage Co. - your only challenge is to be sure that it's a Thursday or Friday night show you're seeing, as Shank's is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. But it's worth the trip, especially on Fridays, for its seafood specials. (The current Thursday special is also fascinating - beef on weck, a Buffalo institution rarely seen outside of that region. If you like great and unusual beef sandwiches, stop at Shank's before the Thursday show.) Be sure to view the photographs of the tavern's history - this is a place where people were drinking and eating in the same rooms, in front of the same fireplace, long before the Civil War.
On Fridays, everything is available from a smorgasbord's worth of steamers - shrimp, mussels, multiple kinds of clams - to sushi to proprietor Bob Shank's own lump crabcakes, made by him fresh that afternoon. Sushi rolls are also made in-house, both vegetable rolls and cooked varieties (shrimp, crab, smoked salmon, etc.) We had vegetable, Maryland crab, and smoked salmon rolls, all of which were delicious and perfectly rolled, as well as Bob's crab cakes, which are some of the best made in the area - fresh, mildly seasoned, lightly coated lump crab, with, quite visibly, no fillers. Cheesecake, plain or cherry, is the standard dessert of the house, but you may not have room for it if you've plowed your way through sushi or steamers first. And don't eat so much you can't stay awake through the show!
Although it's a tavern, dining is family-friendly (adults can purchase drinks at the dinner tables), so it's a suitable choice for dining prior to child-friendly shows at Susquehanna Stage as well as for adult shows. Several small children were enjoying burgers, fries, and other kid-friendly food when we were dining there.
The current offering at Susquehanna Stage is BABY, a show that's about - surprise - having a baby. The musical by Richard Maltby, Jr. (THE PIRATE QUEEN, AIN'T MISBEHAVIN') and David Shire (BIG and STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW) is about three couples at a university - two students in their twenties, a pair of athletic coaches in their thirties, and a professor and his wife in their late forties - dealing with pregnancies... or their lack thereof.
Although in 1983, back in the days of such colossus shows as CATS and A CHORUS LINE, it had a short run, BABY was well-received, more for the music than for the book (though it too had a Tony nomination), and it's for the music that you should go see it, because if you pay attention to these couples, you'll find that you've been or you know at least one of them and that there's someone among them you'd dearly love to, as the current saying goes, hit with a clue stick - for this reviewer, it was the twentyish student who, upon discovering she was pregnant, never had one concern for how having a baby would affect her studies or her future. (The book's writer, Sybille Pearson, seems not to have met any pregnant college students to obtain genuine reactions.) Other audience members were having their own reactions to other characters - if you've ever known people with pregnancies or who are trying to get pregnant, this show hits home in one way or another; it might even be triggering to some people who have been in the shoes of some of the characters.
The students, Lizzie and Danny, are played by Kate Hain and Alex Weaver with a heavy dash of cheerful Sixties optimism - they're a bit hippie for the yuppie Eighties, but Hain and Weaver are delightful performers, full of energy and vocal power - Weaver, playing a would-be composer who's making money playing in a band when he's not in school, certainly fills the bill with his performance. Hain's voice is best displayed on the women's trio, "I Want It All." The coaches, Pam and Nick, the couple who can't get pregnant despite trying, are Liz Boyer and Philip Narsh, possibly the most vocally gifted of the men. Boyer's Pam comes across as intensely likeable through a trying period of the couple's life, and Boyer and Narsh make Pam and Nick in many respects the most relatable of the couples for most audiences. Steve Sturgis and Roxanne Wolgemuth are Alan and Arlene, the oldest couple, faced with a complicated midlife pregnancy, already-grown children, and a marriage in which they've never been alone as a couple.
It's the relationship situations that the women's pregnancy issues trigger that are the real meat of the show, and the cast delivers on those nicely - Sturgis and Wolgemuth give Alan and Arlene's marriage a very real feeling, and over thirty years the issues for middle-aged couples haven't changed much; anyone over 40 will feel that they've had coffee or played golf or tennis with one of the two's characters. There's some beautiful, nuanced acting here that you don't always find in community theatre.
The only drawback of the production to date has been sound issues. Thanks to the weather cutting into rehearsals, the show's lighting was finalized only hours before opening, and technical matters with sound prevented all of the songs from being heard fully by the audience - a shame, as this musical has a truly fine score. It's a small show, yet with more songs than many far larger ones, and many of those songs are both musically and lyrically powerful. It needs to be heard clearly. Still, with the drawbacks of rehearsals during one of the worst Central Pennsylvania winters in ages, director Jim Johnson and the cast have pulled off some excellent work despite technical flaws.
Don't expect to love all the characters all the time (you may want to yell at them), and don't look for this to be a show for the ages - it's one of those small shows that Broadway used to put out, a good show with good music, not either an all-time classic or the deliberately-engineered blockbuster of modern Broadway. It's a show that would have done much better in New York back in the late 50's - it's a bit heavier thematically, but of the same range, as some of Comden and Green's work; don't dismiss it for its lack of familiarity, but see it to catch the music and to see a nice piece of work by Jim Johnson and the main cast.
At Susquehanna Stage Co. through March 9; visit www.susquehannastageco.com for tickets. For information on Shank's Tavern, visit www.shankstavern.com to see hours, menus, and specials.