nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
July 18, 2012
Michael Ogborn's Baby Case is one of the more impressive NYMF productions I've seen in the five or so years I've been attending the festival. It's an exceedingly difficult work to pull off on a tiny budget in a space that must be shared with a handful of other shows. There are dozens of characters, multiple points of view, tongue-twisting lyrics, and, according to the producer's pre-show speech, 600 lighting cues. And yet, seemingly against the odds, director Jeremy Dobrish and his sharp cast have given this terrifically intriguing, albeit occasionally messy, musical an enviable production.
In Baby Case, which premiered at the Arden Theatre in 2002 and won a slew of Barrymore Awards, Ogborn, who wrote the book and score, explores media celebrity and infamy at their infancy, using the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as its focal point. Calling it the "Crime of the Century," America had never seen such media frenzy, and the rising usage of a new-ish medium called radio made it so updates could be broadcast into living rooms with unprecedented frequency.
Ogborn shoots for the moon—and very nearly lassos it. Baby Case is a kaleidoscope of well-developed points of view, from Walter Winchell who's narrating the piece (the excellent Michael Thomas Holmes) to Violet Sharp (Melissa van der Schyff, in terrific voice), the Lindbergh maid who killed herself because of police pressure to confess (or was it?) to Adela St. Johns, the female journalist assigned to cover the case, played by Hannah Elless, who, in Martin Lopez's stunning period costumes, looks like she jumped off a page of Life magazine.
Yet the points of view that get lost, unfortunately, are those of Charles Lindbergh (Will Reynolds) and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Anika Larsen). In a story where the celebrity of aviator Charles elevates the case from mere kidnapping to world-wide sensation, these characters shouldn't just about disappear into the crowd. Another strong choice—which doesn't necessarily work—is having Reynolds and Larsen return as Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the accused kidnapper who gets convicted and the electric chair, and his wife Anna. It's especially difficult when they exit one scene as one character, and return, seconds later, as the other. To their credit, Reynolds and Larsen deliver nuanced, tender performances, but the idea, while evocative, is just confusing.
The musical itself is filled with a slew of terrific '30s-style songs, and an equally strong book, but both could use a trim here and there, and perhaps some reorganization (there's a clear first act finale in the song "Over the Sea," but the act continues for one more number). The production itself is pretty advanced for a NYMF show, with those reported 600 lighting cues (by Zach Blane) and a small, well-designed set (also by Lopez). Dobrish's deft direction keeps the piece moving, and Warren Adams' choreography gives the piece that certain musical theater razzmatazz.
If there's one complaint, as I have every year, it's with the sound quality of the festival's venues, and the poor balance between orchestra and actors made it difficult, when I saw the production, to hear a good amount of lyrics. Still, those I that I could hear impressed me quite a bit.