Review: ‘Babes in Toyland’—A Nostalgic Delight with MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall
By Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, April 28, 2017
A concert version of Babes in Toyland was presented at the exquisite Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening. First produced in 1903, the Victor Herbert operetta is considered a landmark because it was a bridge between European-style operetta and American musical theater. Blair Brown, the narrator for the evening, not only provided historic and sometimes amusing references, she also helped the audience follow the very convoluted plot.
I won’t even try to describe the story, but suffice it to say, it is particularly silly. There have been several versions of Babes in Toyland over the years, each trying to tackle the plot in different ways; you may be familiar with the Laurel and Hardy film version. This was a concert version, with lecterns provided and performers using scripts throughout. There were minimal costumes; sometimes just a suggestion, or an accessory, like a hat. Andrew Palermo is credited with the “musical staging,” and without any large production numbers, he created an entertaining evening of music, movement and comedy that moved along briskly.
The production was part of the MasterVoices series at Carnegie Hall, which boasts a membership of 130 singers. Founded in 1941 by the legendary Robert Shaw, the group is now under the direction of Ted Sperling, and when the full ensemble sang, it was astonishing and thrilling to hear all the voices together. With some of the members of the chorus playing small parts, one of the show’s highlights was when the entire chorus tooted along on toy tin horns for the famous “March of the Toys.” The Orchestra of St. Luke’s provided solid instrumental support for the performance.
This one-night-only event gathered together an impressive roster of talent, on top of which was Kelli O’Hara, playing Contrary Mary. Her gorgeous voice was perfect for the operetta style, bringing out the best of the lovely melodies. She also possesses the comedic ability to carry off the more light-hearted aspects of the production as well; her entrances and exits got laughs simply because she never walked—she trotted on and off the stage. And she can tell a joke, whether in song or in spoken dialogue; she is a treasure.
Another treasure is Bill Irwin, playing the dastardly Toymaker. His singular style of movement is such a delight. Christopher Fitzgerald, recently nominated for a Tony Award in the musical, Waitress, also has a comic individuality that turns the ordinary into original and funny moments. Lauren Worsham played his sister, Jane, and if you saw her in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, you are aware she can balance comedic elements with her warm soprano voice, fitting the operetta style beautifully.
Included in the list of wonderful performers was Jay Armstrong Johnson (Tom-Tom, The Piper’s Son) who has a strong Irish tenor sound, and even did a bit of balletic dancing. Michael Kostroff was the comically bewildered Chief Inspector Marmaduke, with Jonathan Freeman as Uncle Barnaby, providing the dark-hearted, selfish villainy essential to the plot. His two hired henchmen were played with broad comic style by Chris Sullivan (Gonzorgo) and Jeffrey Schecter (Roderigo). (Sullivan has been in various Broadway productions, but seen recently in the TV series, This is Us; Schecter last seen in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.) The two of them reminded me of the gangsters in Kiss Me Kate, and I almost expected them to break out into “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Of course, they didn’t, but Sullivan had his own special moment. As Blair Brown explained, it wasn’t uncommon for special material about current affairs to be included in operettas in the early 1900s, so in this instance Sullivan sang a refrain about Trump:“Melania, will you marry me and share my gold – until you get old….” Yes, there was a big laugh.
Much of the time it wasn’t clear what was going on plot-wise, but the whole evening was good-natured and entertaining. What a pleasure to see all the combined talent on the stage of the historic Carnegie Hall.
Babes in Toyland presented by MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall on April 27, 2017. Music by Victor Herbert; book and lyrics by Glen MacDonough; concert adaptation by Joe Keenan and Ted Sperling; concert script and additional lyrics by Joe Keenan; conductor and director: Ted Sperling; Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Cast: Blair Brown (Narrator); Jeffrey Schecter (Roderigo); Chris Sullivan (Gonzorgo); Jonathan Freeman (Uncle Barnaby); Christopher Fitzgerald (Alan); Lauren Worsham (Jane); Jay Armstrong Johnson (Tom-Tom, The Piper’s Son); Anna Landy (Jill); Nicole Coffaro, Ghalahad Abella, Robert James, Amy Charowski, Jessica Bobadilla, Erica D’Ancona, and Elena Reyes (children of the Widow Piper); Nina Hennessy (The Widow Piper); Kelli O’Hara (Contrary Mary); Marnee Hollis, Rebecca Jovin, Stealla Papatheodorou, Katherine Young (the Spirits of the Woods); Michael Kostroff (Chief Inspector Marmaduke); Bill Irwin (the Toymaker); Jan Constantine, Susan Dramm, Paula Mermelstein, Angela Milner, Sybil Pollet (the Widows of Toyland).
Cover: (l. to r.) Jonathan Freeman, Christopher Fitzgerald, and Bill Irwin in ‘Babes in Toyland’ with MasterVoices at Carnegie Hall; photo: Erin Baiano.