July 18, 2012
There’s a lot that's similar about Bonnie & Clyde, the Frank Wildhorn musical about the Depression-era gangsters that closed in December after just 36 performances, and Baby Case, the musical about the Lindbergh kidnapping that opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Monday as part of this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. Maybe they have too much in common.
Both are based on real-life crime stories that made headlines in the '30s. Both have listenable scores—not perfect scores but ones with songs built on catchy, and sometimes lovely, melodies that stick with you (click here to sample some from the new show). And both are old-fashioned book musicals. Which I usually like. The problem is that both these books are so wobbly they undermine the resulting show.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: book writing must be the hardest job in show business. A good one should tell a story that makes a point, in addition to providing good set-ups for the songs. And it’s got to be even harder to do when one guy writes the book, composes the music and crafts the lyrics, which is what Michael Ogborn has done for Baby Case.
My husband K and I attended Monday's performance of Baby Case and we sat near some people who were clearly friends of Ogborn’s and who, even before the show began, marveled to one another about how talented he is. Indeed, he does seem to be so. But it could have helped his show to have had someone else in the room when he was putting it together.
Baby Case tracks the Lindbergh story from Charles Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight over the Atlantic in 1927 to the 1936 execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted of kidnapping and killing the aviator’s 20-month old son. The crime remains, like those of Bonnie and Clyde, a fascinating and oft-told tale. Which poses a question for anyone who decides to tell it again: why do it?
Ogborn attempts to answer that by condemning the media circus that surrounded what was then called “the crime of the century” and by questioning whether Hauptman was really guilty. Both are valid ideas but without having had anyone else in the room to bat them around with, Ogborn doesn’t develop either fully.
There are plenty of scenes—and a few song and dance numbers—in which reporters and photographers hound Lindbergh and his wife Anne both before and after the kidnapping. The publisher William Randolph Hearst pops up periodically to push for more sensational coverage and the columnist Walter Winchell to demonstrate some of the worst of it. But Ogborn doesn’t seem to have anything to say about all of this besides, isn’t it a shame?
Similarly, he drops hints that Hauptmann may have been framed but he doesn’t make a clear argument for why he was or who was behind it. The real problem may be that Ogborn was not only trying to do too much but to cram too much into his show.
Baby Case name checks almost everyone with any connection to the incident—a Lindbergh family maid who committed suicide, an eccentric school teacher who got involved in the ransom negotiations, a celebrity reporter who covered the case and even mobster Al Capone. The show extends their 15 minutes of fame far beyond their expiration date: does the truck driver who discovered the baby’s body really need a song?
Everyone in the hardworking cast plays multiple roles. Even Will Reynolds who plays Lindbergh doubles as Hauptmann. Having one actor play both those parts is an interesting conceit but again not enough is done with it to make a point. Is Ogborn saying that both men were victims of the media? Or is he implying that Lindbergh may have been just as easily culpable as Hauptmann in the child’s death? Inquiring minds want to know.
The 10 producers listed on the program have given Baby Case a quality production. Most of the cast members have Broadway credits, including Melissa van der Schyff, who was a standout as the sister-in-law Blanche in Bonnie & Clyde and does a fine job of singing one of this show’s most plaintive ballads.
Martin T. Lopez’s set is simple but his costumes —and there are a lot of them—nicely evoke the period. Meanwhile, K marveled at how the actors could have learned all the choreography that Warren Adams devised in what must have been a short rehearsal period for this six-show run, which ends on Sunday. And Jeremy Dobrish has directed with equal vim.
Still, I’m being so nitpicky about Baby Case because it has so much potential. Unlike so many NYMF shows, it isn’t a goofy spoof and the fact that people remember and continue to debate a crime that was committed 80 years ago underscores the potency of the story. But Ogborn has been working on Baby Case for over a decade now (it won four Barrymore Awards, including Best Musical, in his native Philadelphia back in 2002) and this may be as far as he can go with it.