Stylishly dressed in black, with her distinctive red-hair, and utilizing her warm, smooth voice, the luminous Blair Brown stood at a music stand off to the side, and was a wonderfully entertaining narrator. Ms. Brown’s fabulous, dry comic timing was used to grand effect as she read the often-tart commentary. Brown’s appearance was a definite asset, as the show’s sensibility is decidedly of long ago.
Also invigorating the evening were the radiant Kelli O’Hara, as a 15-year-old, often using a comic Irish accent, and that sensational, clown extraordinaire Bill Irwin as a malevolent toy maker.
Droll Jonathan Freeman, garbed in a black cape and top hat, played a Cyril Ritchard-style, villainous uncle, and there were marvelous performances by Christopher Fitzgerald, Lauren Worsham, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Chris Sullivan, Jeffrey Schecter, and Michael Kostroff.
With Herbert’s melodious score, and a book and lyrics by Glen MacDonough, the 1903 Babes in Toyland was a family musical extravaganza that combined Mother Goose rhyme characters, and had a cast of over 200. It opened in Chicago, toured the U.S., and played on Broadway for 192 performances.
Apart from short-running Broadway revivals in 1930, and 1931, it hasn’t been performed in a major production in New York City since. Many people grew up watching on television the Laurel and Hardy 1934 film version that was retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers.
“Toyland,” “March of the Toys,” “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep” and “I Can’t Do the Sum” are songs from the score that have had an afterlife.
Mr. Sperling and Joe Keenan created this concert adaptation of the original book, and Mr. Keenan wrote the entertaining concert script, and additional updated lyrics. “If I Were a Man Like That” had references to Donald Trump.
The creations by costume consultant Tracy Christensen added tremendous visual flair. There were foliage hats, a bear suit, spider accessories, that were all worn by the cast to great effect.
Andy Palermo’s musical staging was energetic and fast-paced. There were a number of choreographic highlights. Perhaps the most memorable was “The March of The Wooden Soldiers” with just one soldier, and Irwin coming off the stage and into the audience.
All the tinkering was necessary as the show’s convoluted plot and several novelty songs that have nothing to do with the action are of an antiquated mode.
In order to steal the inheritances of the orphans Alan and Jane, their evil Uncle Barnaby hires the sailors Gonzorgo and Roderigo to have them shipwrecked at sea. The children are rescued by gypsies and end up at Contrary Mary’s garden. Old Mother Hubbard is around as well, and the first act ends in The Den of The Spiders.
The second act takes place in Toyland, which as Ms. Brown bitingly pointed out, was never mentioned in the first act. There, Alan and Jane battle the evil Master Toymaker who is plotting with Uncle Barnaby to create toys that are violent. There’s a third act with even more complications.
Such melodramatic fantasias were a staple of early 20th American century theater, and the artistic team of this production did an excellent job of streamlining such an unwieldy scenario. There were a lot of witty, tongue and cheek elements that played very well.
This MasterVoices spirited, revisal was a highly enjoyable commemoration of the 75th anniversary of their founding.
Babes in Toyland (April 27, 2017)
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, 881 7th Avenue at 57th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-247-7800 or visit http://www.mastervoices.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission