BWW Reviews: BABES IN HOLLYWOOD Takes Audiences On a Nostalgia-Fueled Sentimental Journey
When I was growing up in West Tennessee, every afternoon at 3:30 p.m. (and on Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m.), Channel 3 in Memphis would broadcast The Early Movie: some black and white film classic from the '30s or '40s, usually, that otherwise I never would have seen. As a result, I've probably lost myself in every movie musical made during that era, including all those "my grampa's got a barn, Penny can make the costumes…hey kids, let's put on a show" movies that now provide a soundtrack for my daily showers and dog-walking responsibilities. And my brain is full of so much trivia and minutiae from the old Andy Hardy (and the Dr. Kildare film series that starred Lew Ayres) movies that I could probably tell you the names of all of young Andy's friends at Carvel High.
That being said, I am clearly the target audience for Babes in Hollywood: The Music of Garland and Rooney, the tune-filled musical revue now onstage at The Gaslight Dinner Theatre at The Renaissance Center in Dickson. And I loved every minute, easily overlooking the book (if you have the chutzpah to call the thinnest of scripts that), and allowing myself to be completely transported to another world, another time that helped propel my own creative dreams. Like taking my own sentimental journey, Babes in Hollywood is sweetly evocative and enormously entertaining, featuring a four-member ensemble who bring all those wonderful songs to life.
Directed by Pacer Harp, with the able music direction of Nathan W. Brown and choreographer Bryan J. Wlas (both Brown and Wlas, talented crooners and hoofers themselves, make up one-half of the four-person ensemble), it's a wonderfully charming and mostly light-hearted theatrical offering that tries to capture the tenor and tone of those earlier times while casting a spotlight on the enduring friendship-both on-screen and off-of Judy Garland (who usually was cast in the Penny role in the early musicals, her clarion voice set to the music of all of the great songwriting teams of the first-half of the 20th century) and Mickey Rooney (who usually had the bright idea of snagging Grampa's rickety old barn for a dazzling musical that would surely delight the Broadway producer whose limousine had broken down, stranding him in the bucolic American countryside).
Granted, Babes in Hollywood isn't for all theater audiences-although, frankly, it should be…what's with you people?-and you'll certainly love it more if you're at least somewhat informed about the Garland/Rooney film oeuvre or the legendarily close relationship the two young stars forged as children and continued throughout their lives. Although that friendship was abruptly ended in 1969 when Garland died in London (I remember reading the news in the Memphis Press-Scimitar as a sixth grader), I've no doubt Mickey Rooney still has conversations with his old pal, somewhere within the recesses of his memory and his heart.
The ridiculously talented pair met as adolescents once they became part of Hollywood's rigid studio system-not long after she changed her name from Frances "Baby" Gumm and he left behind his given name of Joe Yule Jr.-they were phenomenal talents at a time that mass marketing was coming into vogue, and their lives would be played out in the pages of "fan magazines" and onscreen, the on-screen chemistry they shared guaranteeing the intertwining of their careers for decades to come.
The song list for Babes in Hollywood is chockfull of American pop music standards, some expected, some a little surprising. There's "On the Atchison, Topeka and The Santa Fe," "Babes in Arms" and "Where or When" (I love me some Rodgers and Hart and I salved my first heartbreak at the age of 22 to the beautiful lyrics of "it seems we stood and talked like this before," words which still bring tears to my eyes), "The Trolley Song" and "Meet Me is St. Louis" from the movie of that title, and "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart." But you'll also hear "Stepping Out With My Baby," "I Got Rhythm," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and "On The Sunny Side of the Street." If I had a dollar for every time I've hummed those songs under my breath (or belted them out in my shower or in my mind), I would be a rich, rich man. And, frankly, audiences are all the richer for hearing them performed by the quartet of remarkable performers assembled by the director, the good Mr. Harp.
The dulcet-toned, light on their feet Brown and Wlas (both of whom exemplify the term "song-and-dance man" with such talent and grace) are joined by the amazing Hannah McGinley and the wondrous Michelle Valenti, who give the songs new life, offering fresh interpretations (musical arrangements and medleys are crafted by Andrew Philip Herron) of all these beloved songs, ensuring that new generations will be treated to them.
"San Francisco" (which I instantly associate with Jeanette McDonald, thanks to her memorable performance of the tune from the 1936 film of the same name) and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" (who can think of anyone besides Tony Bennett when you read that song title?) are fashioned into a nightclub-set production number, while George and Ira Gershwin's "But Not For Me" is paired with "Come Rain or Come Shine," the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen classic that was the featured song at my wedding.
McGinley and Valenti beautifully recreate the memorable duet of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," performed on her 1964 TV series by Garland and the then up-and-coming Barbra Streisand. Valenti also has the dubious honor of singing Garland's signature song, "Over the Rainbow," and she does so with a deft mixture of reverence and moxie, making the song her own. McGinley shows off her ability to deliver a torch song with all its emotion and passion, torrid phrasing intact, in "The Man That Got Away," the Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin hit from Garland's version of A Star is Born.
Created by David Grapes, who spent six years as producing artistic director at Nashville's Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Babes in Hollywood attempts to give us an overview of Garland and Rooney's lives and careers, but it's hard to relay all that information in the guise of a musical revue. Instead, Grapes' script is thin, his delivery of facts seemingly scattershot. What starts off as a chronology of the events in the two young stars' lives (and make no mistake about it, Garland and Rooney define that word) becomes a confusing mishmash of dates and facts as the two's lives become far more complicated and unwieldy.
For Gaslight Dinner Theatre audiences, it's unfortunate that no mention is made of the fact that Judy Garland's father-vaudevillian Frank Gumm-was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (about an hour down the road from the Renaissance Center) and that Mickey Rooney's Broadway hit Sugar Babies (which is mentioned, however briefly, during Act Two) got its start at the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where it was originally entitled New Majestic Follies.
Eddie Nichols' sets are rather simple, but completely suitable for the revue, evolving from a Hollywood soundstage to a faded, but still glamorous, nightclub, with Nathan A. Ray's superb lighting design perfectly capturing a sense of time and place that's essential to make this show work. And once again, Rachel Gallup provides lovely costumes for her four actors.
- Babes in Hollywood: The Music of Garland and Rooney. Created by David Grapes. Musical arrangements and medleys by Andrew Philip Herron. Directed by Pacer Harp. Music direction by Nathan W. Brown. Choreographed by Bryan J. Wlas. Presented by the Gaslight Dinner Theatre at The Renaissance Center, Dickson. Through March 10. For details, go to www.rcenter.org; for reservations, call (615) 740-5600.