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.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.

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