BWW Reviews: Extra! Extra! BABY CASE a hit at NYMF!
Baby Case, a full-length production in NYMF's ninth annual festival, is one of the best offerings this go-around, with a complete package of catchy and moving script and score, top performances, and clever design.
Writer-composer-lyricist Michael Ogborn's show is just as fascinating as any gripping news story. It focuses on the 1932 kidnapping case of Charles A. Lindbergh Jr., the toddler child of an ambassador's daughter and the famous aviator who completed the first trans-Atlantic solo flight. The kidnapping itself is only the beginning with the rest of the show focusing on the case: finding the body, chasing leads, apprehending suspect Bruno Richard Hauptmann, and his trial and execution.
Instead of creating an ordinary docu-musical focusing on the Lindberghs or Hauptmanns, Ogborn's smartly-designed Baby Case focuses on the sensationalism surrounding the case. The audience is introduced to the hoopla by old-fashioned radio personality Walter Winchell (Michael Thomas Holmes) and his back-up trio, the "Studio Sisters" (Hannah Elless, Patricia Noonan, Melissa van Der Schyff). Winchell and the superb Sisters draw the audience into the tabloid world of the Lindbergh case with the help of well over two dozen other characters played by a cast of eleven.
Glimpses at those surrounding the case reveal characters almost too good to be true. Nanny Betty Gow (Noonan) first catches the audience's attention with her anguished song. Later, a vaudeville number by the man (EuGene Barry-Hill) who discovers the corpse is pleasingly reminiscent of Kander and Ebb's Scottsboro Boys. Plus, anxious maid Violet Sharpe (van der Schyff) bemoans the secretive Morrow-Lindbergh estate in a country-esque ballad "Dirty Dishes." What did the nanny and maid see? What do they know? Was it Colonel Mustard in the library?!
That manic, frenzied fixation is displayed by the media and general public, who sit driver's seat with all other characters sitting shotgun. Syncopated, catchy ensemble numbers like "Someone's Taken the Lindbergh Baby" show the almost mob-like panic of the American people. That segues to a media frenzy when William Randolph Hearst (Kurt Zischke) charismatically leads the title number, similar to Chicago's Billy Flynn. Corrupt legal tactics and the nation's obsession with the "trial of the century" continue throughout the show, eventually becoming somewhat redundant but nevertheless entertaining with jazzy numbers, jingles, and even a drinking song.
Of course, a show about the Lindbergh baby case needs stellar actors for the Lindberghs and Hauptmanns, and this production has a wonder pair of actors to play them. Yes, only one pair: in an interesting choice, only one actor (Will Reynolds) plays both Lindbergh and Bruno Richard Hauptmann and only one actress (Anika Larsen) for the wives, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Anna Hauptmann. In between suspects, paparazzi, and reporters, they paint the portraits of two couples, each frustrated and grieving in their own way. Reynolds' quiet strength as Lindbergh is best seen in "Over the Sea," where Lindbergh mourns broken dreams of flying with his son and the loss of his son. In a 180-degree turnaround, Reynolds' outraged voice booms for social justice as Hauptmann denies his guilt in "No I Never Did." Larsen has the more difficult set of roles, with Anne Morrow Lindbergh's private sorrows and Anna Hauptmann's grief as an outcast, but her expressive face and voice - at times powerful, other times fragile - are heartbreaking and provide a human side to this tragedy.
Director Jeremy Dobrish masterfully juxtaposes fast-paced public sensationalism with isolated and embraced private family grieving and stages the show beautifully. Warren Adams' choreography shows off the mob of the public and press in ensemble numbers, but he perhaps over-choreographs Winchell and the Studio Sisters' every movement. Conversely, perfectly executed minimal scenic elements (Martin Lopez) feature a simple desk, chairs, and newspaper bundles, keeping the focus on the compelling story and actors, just as it should be in this exhilarating and emotional new show.
Photo credit: Billy Bustamante