Baby, performed by Performance Preparation Academy at Bellerby Studio Theatre, Guildford.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Baby is a Maltby and Shire musical nominated for two Tonys in a modest Broadway run in 1984 but clearly regarded as too full of American schmaltz to make a successful transfer to the West End.
It was the show that gave Liz Callaway her big Broadway break as Lizzie, the youngest of the three women whose baby story is explored, and the American star’s good luck message, saying the show holds a special place in her heart, is proudly pinned on the students’ cast board.
The part was also a vehicle for Lea Salonga, of Miss Saigon fame, in Manila, yet apart from a revival by the excellent amateurs of Sedos in 2012, it remains a bit of a lost musical as far as London is concerned.
Down in Guildford, though, the students of PPA, under the direction of Lucy Stewart, shook the cobwebs off it with two different casts sharing performances over three days, just as they will do with Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret next weekend.
It is doubtful if either Callaway or Salonga tackled the show’s best-known song ‘The Story Goes On’ with any more vigour or energy than young Beccy Lane in a thrilling finale to Act I and, boy, wasn’t that needed after a shaky start in which the sound balance was all wrong.
The early numbers and spoken dialogue were drowned by the seven-strong band under MD Nick Charters and it took a while for the audience to get into this story, from a book by Sybille Pearson, of three couples at contrasting stages of their relationships.
Lizzie and Danny are loved-up university juniors with the world at their feet, sports instructor Nick and wife Pam are older and have been trying for a baby for yonks but poor Nick is firing blanks, while for 40-somethings Alan and Arlene the idea of another child on top of the three teenagers they have produces mixed feelings as Mum now understandably wants to pursue a life for herself.
It is very much a show of two halves – the froth of the first half giving way to the bitter-sweetness of the inevitable changes that a new arrival or, in the case of one couple, not being able to have one, makes to adult relationships.
The most interesting couple are the long-marrieds, with the interplay between Natalie Thorn and Dan Stark often very moving once Arlene reverses her decision to abort the unplanned baby and then heartbreakingly loses it and the marriage breaks up.
Thorn, a finalist in this year’s Sondheim Society Student Performer of the Year contest, matured superbly into a woman twice her age and her polished acting and singing skills suggest a bright future.
Her ‘And What If We Had Loved Like That’’ duet with Stark (who now tackles a very different sort of part, Herr Schultz, in Cabaret) deservedly earned the biggest applause of Act II, while the truth in Stark’s finely-sung solo ‘Easier to Love’ will have struck home with many parents.
Helena Mitchell’s Pam was a winning and likeable performance opposite Tayler Davis’ deflated Nick, while James Hudson shone as singer and guitarist on ‘I Chose Right’. The chemistry between Beccy Lane’s Lizzie and Hudson’s Danny was palpable.
In smaller roles, an OTT Tiffany Le Coultre was a star comic turn as the doctor who unfeelingly delivers the news about Nick’s sperm problems while having problems of her own with scratchy contact lenses. Molly Gildea took the eye both as fitness instructor and frustrated estate agent.
Maltby and Shire always write listenable songs and there are plenty of good ones, generally well sung and danced, but even so it is not hard to see why, 30 years after conception, Baby is still awaiting a berth (and a birth) in the West End.