Growing up with ‘Baby’

Baby (book by Sybille Pearson, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., music by David Shire) was never destined to be one of those shows that infiltrate and dominate the zeitgeist. It’s not a megaproduction like 80s siblings Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables; it isn’t high-concept like Cats; it doesn’t feature extraordinary dance numbers like 42nd Street. These other shows from the same decade might be more, well, showy, but there is something about Baby’s sweet and utterly familiar focus on the impacts that pregnancy has on three couples—one in college with parenthood not even on their radar, one slightly older who have been trying for years to have a child, and one on the brink of becoming empty-nesters after parenting three children—that allows it to seep into the soul. And Citadel Theatre’s production, with a winning cast and all the play’s joy, fear, and sorrow intact, does the show proud.

Pearson’s focus on these three different couples is one of the things that make Baby universal. Seeing the show in 2024 is, for me, a nostalgic trip through a lifetime. I first saw Baby not long after its 1983 Broadway debut, when I empathized mostly with young Lizzie and Danny, whose future plans are turned upside down when, as college juniors, they discover the pregnancy. Later on, in the early 90s, I was in the ensemble of a production of the show and was more drawn to Nick and Pam, the thirty-something gym coaches who, like me at the time, are desperate to have a child. Now decades older than the 40-something Arlene and Alan, I am drawn to them and best understand the challenges and emotions that this unexpected baby brings into their lives.

Director/choreographer Scott Shallenbarger adapts to Citadel’s small stage by creating defined spaces for each couple and cutting the additional ensemble down to only four actors. It works for the most part, though the ensemble’s size does limit what the director can do with crossovers. (The Act Two opening number, “The Ladies Singing Their Song,” is especially hurt by this as, instead of a town full of women, Lizzie is forced to keep running into the same two people as she takes her pregnant body out walking; it’s weird and awkward.) For the most part, though, the energy and strong singing voices of those four actors (Becca Duff, Lisa Pogofsky Sobelman, Evan B. Smith, and Aaron Rumack) are such that they enhance any scene they are part of. (Duff’s hilarious turn as a fertility doctor is notable.)

The main cast is also excellent. As Lizzie, Madison Jaffe-Richter can seem as näive as a 20-year-old who can believe that having a baby will not totally disrupt her life and at other times exhibit the kind of introspection that is needed for the Act One closer, “The Story Goes On,” not to mention belt as well as Liz Calloway, who originated the role on Broadway. As her counterpart, aspiring musician Danny, Ben Ballmer is pretty much perfect: he embodies a young man who is totally supportive of his girlfriend and willing to change his life’s plans on a dime to accommodate a new reality. He also shows off his considerable dance skills in “Fatherhood Blues,” where his arms and legs akimbo moves bring to mind the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

Pearson puts the other two couples through the ringer, and the four actors—Katie Engler and Mark Yacullo as gym coaches Pam and Nick, and Julie Bayer and Joe Lehman as Arlene and Alan, who are shocked to discover what a drunken (and forgotten) anniversary celebration at the Plaza has wrought. Engler’s strong voice and physical comedy chops complement Yacullo’s earnest crooning in songs like “Baby, Baby, Baby,” though fate (and Pearson) make conceiving a major chore for them. (I absolutely remember those days of rigidly scheduled sex and legs in the air; talk about taking all of the fun from something!) It’s Bayer and Lehman, though, that provide most of the show’s more poignant moments. Bayer’s “Patterns” and Lehman’s “Easier to Love,” as well as the beautiful/sad duet “And What If We Had Loved Like That” highlight the disruptive nature of having children and what it can do to a couple.

Shallenbarger’s decision to bring the show forward into the present works well except when he is forced to deal with such dated things as a 30-something gym teacher doing Groucho Marx impressions and singing Sinatra…both of which are a bit of a stretch for Millennials. (Pearson did herself no favors when she saddled the show with too many cheap and easy jokes instead of providing more depth, but whatever.) It’s Maltby and Shire’s songs that provide the emotional core for her, and they lose nothing for being forty years removed from their time. If the show feels as if it would be better cut by half an hour or so, which it does, that isn’t their fault.

In all, Baby is a genial, sweet, entertaining journey into and through one of the most powerful and important things that any couple goes through. It may not be a perfect musical, but its heart is strong.

Baby runs through May 19th at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd, Lake Forest. You can get tickets here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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