BABALU: Celebrating The Music Of Desi Arnaz
My dear reader, when I interviewed Lucie Arnaz, she spoke of her father's journey through life. I'd like to start this column with my journey, not through life but just through last night. It would be too easy to start this review with "I fell for BABALU." I didn't. Indeed, upon entering the Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht, I began to black out. My legs were buckling beneath me and I was going down. Brett, my theater going companion and other half, kept me from passing out on the floor. Frankly, I think we were both much more embarrassed about me blacking out at BABALU's opening night, than our concern for any health issue I may have been suffering.
I've been to the doctor very recently; I am in tip top condition. I shall go to the doctor again, as this was not the first time I had one of these near blackout spells. I felt better and better after we were seated in the theater. Thus far, Brett and my doctor have attributed these near fainting bouts with my intense dieting and lack of consuming enough food. Anyone dieting, being told they are not eating enough, well, those are just great words to hear. Of course, I am still embarrassed by what occurred and what I may have said to anyone, old friends or new, on the way to our seats. Anyway, kindly do not inundate me with flowers, and get well wishes. I feel fine this morning, and I assure you I shall feel fine for quite a long time to come.
BABALU was a fine night at the theater. I am not positive yet if it is a revue, a nightclub act, or a Broadway musical trying to find its way. Filled with the music of Desi Arnaz, and a few others, this show is a love letter from Lucie Arnaz to her much adored father, Desi. She talks a lot about her father, sings and dances to music from his career and spends the performance as a charming host.
Lucie looks beautiful, and her singing is wonderful. She appears to be having a fine time, and certainly wants the audience to have a great time. However, as the creative driving force behind this show, and as its lead performer, Ms. Arnaz seems to have left her warmth at home. One thing we know about Desi Arnaz; he was a sweet, loving and warm gentleman. Perhaps too often that warmth was directed at a woman other than his wife. Shame on him, but then again, he was not unlike millions of men before him and we can be sure, millions to follow. If Lucie was able to ‘warm up a bit,' perhaps the whole show would have taken on an aura of love and celebration for Desi Arnaz.
Rather than relying on the show's host, it is Raul Esparza, who gets the cheers and it is Raul performing the songs of Mr. Arnaz, that are the highlights of BABALU. His star has been ascending for a number of years now, and Raul's performance in BABALU is not one that will soon be forgotten. He sings with joy, passion, and ecstasy and he carries us along on this riveting ride.
Raul gets to share the ‘pattern portions' of BABALU with Ms. Arnaz. There are many patter moments, when Lucie and Raul are telling us about Desi's life. In addition to being historically questionable (there are books attributing much of Desi Arnaz's contributions in music and television, to others. In Jess Oppenheimer's book, he reveals himself to be the genius behind Mr. Arnaz's feats) surely, a more entertaining way could have been found for these segments as opposed to Ms. Arnaz and Mr. Esparza standing center stage and telling us the ‘Desi Arnaz Story.' Were this a musical, I would encourage them to set the story to music and lyrics with appropriate choreography.
Ramon Del Barrio, BABALU's choreographer, is the one creative force who seemed never to lose his way, with joy, passion and spirit, that is part of the legacy of Desi Arnaz. Mr. Del Barrio does great work with Richard Amaro and Jennette Delgado. The show kicks into high gear when Mr. Del Barrio gets to strut his stuff with his principal dancers. One only wishes that Ramon had more dancers and more opportunity to whip us into a frenzy with his spot on choreography.
The new Desi Arnaz orchestra is onstage with Lucie's brother, Desi Jr., on percussion. He is great. The audience loved Desi Jr. almost as much as it loved Raul Esparza. Desi Jr. came across as warm, charming, and totally down to earth. Doing a show in tribute to his father, these were invaluable assets for Mr. Arnaz Jr. to possess.
Valarie Pettiford is every inch a great theater professional. Sadly, she was not given the material with which to show us how truly divine she can be. Frankly, I am not sure what she was doing in the show. This was a classic example of not using talent to its fullest extent.
Ron Abel, is onstage at the piano, and he is the evening's musical director. Mostly, he is working with Desi's original charts from the 30s and 40s. Mr. Abel is a respected, highly talented musician. The sad news to report is that Mr. Arnaz's charts from the 30s and 40s do not an evening's entertainment make.
BABALU seems like an extended version of a Lucie Arnaz nightclub act with the theme of the act being her father. With the exception of the impossibly gorgeous voice of Mr. Esparza and indeed, the great singing of Ms. Arnaz, this show does not seem to ‘know its way.' Much of this is attributable to the white elephant in the room.
Lucille Ball is probably one of the most beloved and famous and successful women in the history of show business. Couldn't they throw in a little Lucy with their celebration of Desi? There was a tiny amount of Lucille Ball in BABALU, including an all too short rendition of the I LOVE LUCY theme song. It seems odd. None of us would likely know of Desi Arnaz or his music were it not for the glorious redhead. As an audience, we understand that the show is about Desi Arnaz. I suspect Mr. Arnaz might be the first one to proclaim that it is foolish to do a tribute show to him, without the lady having some amount of celebration.
It comes across as though Lucie Arnaz had some kind of problem with her mother. Can't she hear the audience excitement when anything remotely relating to her mother happens onstage? We knew we were seeing a Desi tribute, but we waited for and treasured those ever so spare Lucy moments. Was it just me, or did Ms. Arnaz seem to deliver her very brief words about her mother, begrudgingly?
Note to Ms. Arnaz; millions of people throughout the world love your father. But, they love him because your mother loved him. This is not to take anything away from the talent and business acumen had by Desi Arnaz. It is simply a reality that Lucille Ball, was an entertainment phenomenon, the likes of which do not come along very often in anyone's lifetime.
When I asked Lucie if she thought a Broadway musical about her parents would ‘work,' she told me, indeed. She is working on it now and its Working Title is THE DESI STORY. She told me there will be a bit of Lucille Ball in the musical; but just a bit. The show will be, as the Working Title clearly shows, about her father.
As I believe I have said, aside from the passing out spell, last night was a pleasant one. It surely dragged too often, but it exploded when Raul took to the stage with his star's charisma and gorgeous voice.
BABALU needs work. A show in tribute to Lucy and Desi would have an immediate advantage. BABALU does have a great many elements to make it a truly fetching piece of entertainment. As Desi Arnaz would say, "there must be a way."
BABALU'S final performance at the Arsht Center is July 11.
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