Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Babes in Toyland (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

I approached this resurrection of The Little Orchestra Society’s 1990s-era  “Babes in Toyland” with some trepidation. Admirable champion of Herbert’s work that the Orchestra’s late director, Dino Anagnost, was, when it came to “Babes in Toyland,” he always opted for a greatly abridged version geared to children. 

Gone were any songs not directly integral to the plot. According to VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott in her introductory remarks to the production under review here, Maestro Anagnost considered them the “kitchen sink” songs (as in “everything but the…”). 

But nonetheless, it can’t be denied that many of those numbers were among the most popular in the show, and have been generally included even in otherwise abbreviated stage, recording, and broadcast versions of the three-hour extravaganza that premiered to such great acclaim in 1903.. “Beatrice Barefacts,” “Jane,” “The Moon Will Help You Out,” “Our Castle in Spain,” and above all, the infectious earworm “Barney O’Flynn” were all casualties of Anagnost’s edition. 

As this was the version Mott chose to revive, I wondered how much of the score would be left given the rather ungenerous 65 minute running time. Much to my relief, there was more than I imagined, and it was well sung by Mott’s as-usual well-chosen cast, with Herbert’s music authentically played (in a reduction of the original score) by ace Music Director Michael Thomas and his eight-member New Victor Herbert Orchestra. True, not all the verses were there, and Mott changed many of lyricist Glen MacDonough’s words to match the streamlined plot, but the result still made for a satisfying earful to the audience at my performance, nearly all adults as it turned out. 

With just a smidgen of an overture, Alexa Devlin as Mother Goose addressed the audience in the time-honored way of children’s theater delivery. But such was Devlin's command and charm that it registered as ingratiating not patronizing. And when she launched into the introductory strains of the hit tune “Toyland” in her warm and engaging mezzo, the crowd was right with her, singing along to the refrain. I wish she had more to sing, but besides a later reprise of “Toyland,” she was allowed a verse of the famous “I Can’t Do That Sum.” 

McDonough’s 1903 book was impossibly complicated but every other aspect of the show had critics outdoing themselves for superlatives: the wondrous stagecraft, the elaborate scenery and astonishing special effects, splendid costumes, beautiful girls, and above all, that superlative score by Herbert which far outshone the songs for “The Wizard of Oz,” the hugely popular extravaganza that immediately preceded and inspired “Babes”  at Columbus Circle’s Majestic Theatre. Though a smash hit in New York and on tour, it didn’t quite financially surpass “Oz”  because, it has been suggested, of its less appealing book. 

Mott’s version positioned Little Bo-Peep and Tom (siblings in the original!) as the central love interest. (The original “babes” were actually brother and sister Alan and Jane, wards of mean Silas Barnaby who wants to dispatch them for their fortune. Alan loves Mary Contrary, and Jane is the sweetheart of Tom (a trouser role). 

So there had to be plenty of juggling of songs at VHRP.  The expanded Bo-Peep role meant that company regular Joanie Brittingham appropriated Alan’s “Floretta” and part of “Before and After,” as well as her part of the familiar “Never Mind, Bo-Peep,” and sang them with her customary skill. Because of Bo-Peep’s perpetually losing her sheep, the character’s recurring business involved a lot of Lucy Ricardo-like “waahhh” outbursts, irritating after a while. And a bit out of character for Bo-Peep’s elevation from soubrette to female principal in this version.

Hero Tom Tom, clearly and strongly sung by Ryan Allais, who offered solid versions of his several numbers including the multi-verse “Song of the Poet.”

Mean Silas Barnaby was played with comic relish by the always splendid Matthew Wages who also made the most of his one vocal moment, “The Richest Man in Toyland,” a reworking of “He Won’t Be Happy Till He Gets It.”

Chaz Peacock and Andrew Buck were good fun as his comical ruffian henchmen, Roderigo and Gonzargo, and their number “A Great Big Cheer” was set to the tune of “If I Were a Man Like That” from the original. 

Mott’s libretto expunged all unseemly parts of the original -- the Toymaker who hates children and wants to maim them with his toys, and Barnaby’s genuinely murderous plans for the babes -- and infused her script with an overall uplifting message of forgiveness. Never mind that when Mother Goose gave everyone the “choice” of whether the contrite Barnaby should live or die at the end most opted for the latter, but Devlin deftly steered things to a more merciful denouement. 

In 1903, most of the fairy tale offspring of the Widow Piper (rather than Mother Goose) were taken by women, but here it was a first-rate half and half. Kathleen Raab, Gabriella Giangreco, Maggie Langhorne, Sarah Bleasdale, and Mariah Muehler made up the female contingent with the other characters played by Joe Marx, Matthew Youngblood, Zach Wobensmith, and Keith Broughton. Company veteran David Seatter played Old King Cole endearingly. 

Mott directed the material adroitly as always with lively choreography by Christine Hall.

On reflection, the production contained more Herbert music than the 1934 Laurel and Hardy or 1961 Disney films or even the mid-1950s TV versions. though I wondered afterwards if a pre- or post-show recital of a few of those cut numbers might not have been a clever way of letting us hear the fuller breadth of Herbert’s great score. In any case, if you’re curious to hear as full a version of the show as possible, the late John McGlinn’s unreleased studio version -- as revelatory as his groundbreaking “Showboat” recording --  is still available on YouTube

And we must not forget that New York did get to hear a nearly complete version at Carnegie Hall in 2017 under the direction of Ted Sperling, and his MasterVoices cast. The accompanying narration was more than a tad condescending to the material, but the music was superbly delivered by a top-notch Broadway cast (Kelli O’Hara, Bill Irwin, and Christopher Fitzgerald among them), and Sperling’s fine orchestral and choral forces. 

And VHRP will give us Herbert’s orchestral music in all its unadulterated glory, at its scheduled May 26th concert of his orchestral works to be conducted by Steven Byess with a full orchestra. 

(The Theater at St. Jeans, 150 East 76 Street; Feb. 20-22 only; www.vhrplive.org or https://vhrp-live.thundertix.com)

Photos by Jill LeVine:

Top: Alyce Mott (far left) & Michael Thomas (rear in black) with cast

Below: (l.-r.) Ryan Allais & Joanie Brittingham

(l.-r.) Chaz Peacock, Matthew Wages, Andrew Buck

Bottom: Alexa Devlin

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