Now running at the F. Otto Haas Stage as part of its 2001-2002 season is Michael Ogborn's "Baby Case", the new musical based on the Lindbergh kidnapping. The show explores the media circus which surrounded the event which shocked the world and created the first federal kidnapping laws. Boasting a large cast of 24 actor/singers, this ensemble takes on 123 roles in the telling of the story of one of America's greatest heroes and the baby who changed the world.
For those of you who don't know this grim chapter in American history, famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's first born son, Charlie, was snatched from his crib late one night from the Lindbergh estate outside Hopewell, New Jersey in April 1932. A makeshift ladder and a ransom note to not get the police involved was left behind. Lindbergh used an intermediary to contact the kidnappers and personally delivered the money hoping that the child would be returned unharmed. He was not. Two months later the child was discovered, dead in a shallow grave outside Trenton, New Jersey. Following the money trail, the FBI apprehended Bruno Richard Hauptmann two years later in the Bronx. Hauptmann was tried, convicted and executed in the electric chair. Up until his death Hauptmann maintained his innocence.
Mr. Ogborn has chosen to tell this story in a presentational style which is highly theatrical and very effective in some ways. (Though the down side is that we never achieve the intimacy of really being in the "moment" with the characters.) Walter Winchell (Scott Greer) is our host, our guide, and our ring leader, if you will, who steers us through the murky waters of this sad, cruel event. Above our heads is an inverted telegraph tower which starts dit-dotting out its message to the far corners of the world. This was the high speed telecommunications system of 1932. Everywhere we are reminded of the reporters getting out the story. There are microphones and telephones and aggressive photographers amply showing us how the media descended on Flemington, New Jersey and turned it into a hotbed of activity during the ensuing investigation and trial.
There are a lot of characters in this musical and unfortunately we don't get to spend very much time with each one. But "Baby Case" is a considerably ambitious project with a big story to tell. The key characters are Charles Lindbergh (Jeffrey Coon) and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Sharon Sampieri), Betty Gow (Kristine Fraelich), the nurse, Violet Sharpe (Tracie Higgins) the domestic Servant, John Condon (Charles Antalosky) the go-between, David Wilentz (Michael Thomas Holmes) the New Jersey Attorney General, Edward Reilly, (William Whitehead) the defense attorney, and Bruno Richard Hauptmann (Ben Dibble) the man accused, tried and executed for the kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby.
The first act holds together quite well and some of the music is very melodic and memorable. The ones that stick in my mind are the "Nurse's Song", plaintively sung by Kristine Fraelich, and "Dirty Dishes", an anthem to the maid, Violet, who commits suicide. The second act is more of a pastiche of small pieces that needs to be trimmed down, especially the ending. And there are little two minute ditties sung by inconsequential characters that could be excised painlessly. However, there are several numbers that stand out, most notably "Trial Drinking Song" (which really should be called "Up That Ladder" or "All God's Children" as that is the hook that people walk away singing), a rousing chorus number, "Lawsuit Daddy", a sexy duet sung to both the prosecuting and defense attorneys by their respective amoratas (Tracie Higgins and Victoria Matlock), and "If That's What Greets a Hero", sung by Millard Whited (Aaron Ramey), Lindbergh's neighbor. The lyrics are accessible, in the period and salient.
The subject matter, being as tragic as it is, has been handled well for the most part. However, I took issue with one of the songs. A photographer (Richard Ruiz) who bribes the officials at the morgue is allowed to take photos of the infant's remains. The photographer sings, "A Picture of You" as he gleefully snaps photos of the tiny covered body of the baby lying on a table. The incident was factually true and the photographer went on to sell the autopsy photos outside the courthouse at the trial.
In this day and age we have become more sensitive to the victims who have lost a loved one. The French photographer who took pictures of Princess Diana as she was dying trapped in her car was arrested and his film confiscated. It is known that at Ground Zero in New York, no photos of human remains have been allowed or will be tolerated out of respect for the people who have lost their loved ones in this monumental disaster. I think that Mr. Ogborn has already shown us that the press had a feeding frenzy with this "Crime of the Century" and that he doesn't need to rub our faces in it. I felt it was a "risky" song in that many people in the audience were alienated by it. But, that said, artists are known to take risks and it is up to the writer to decide what he wants an audience to feel.
This is truly an ensemble show and everyone seems to have their moment to shine. Kristine Fraelich in her one song and very small role of the nurse manages to be quite affecting. Ben Dibble is outstanding vocally, physically and emotionally as Bruno Hauptmann. Jeffrey Coon is authentically aloof and reserved as Lindbergh and vocally soars in "To Search for You". Sharon Sampieri is sadly composed as the heartbroken mother, Anne Lindbergh. Richard Ruiz is very funny as Al Capone and Mrs. Evalyn McLean, while being totally grotesque as the Photographer. Aaron Ramey shows vocal prowess and charm on "If That's What Greets a Hero" and Tony Braithwaite once again wowed me -- this time, with his charismatic virtuosity. He takes two very small parts, (the Handwriting Expert and the Wood Expert) and transforms them into comic turns. Then he impersonates Jack Benny to a "t". Victoria Matlock is the sexiest secretary you'll ever see and William Whitehead's performance is potent as the alcoholic, world weary defense attorney, Edward Reilly. The set by Tony Cisek works because it is simple, sleek and functional. Charcoal gray platforms are held up by silver metalwork that resembles the legs of telegraph towers. The costumes by Richard St. Clair are color keyed to the set in varying shades of gray, black and white. This gives the whole milieu a nostalgic feel of the thirties. The orchestra is tucked away underneath the middle of these platforms. And though it sounds pretty sizable, I cannot vouch for exactly what the instrumentation is, as the musicians are not listed in the program, (I hope this was an oversight by the Arden and not a new policy.)
Musicals are expensive to produce and it's obvious that director, Terrence J. Nolen has spent a lot to give this show the high production values that it has. The piece moves at an almost frenetic pace as evidenced by the amount of perspiration flying off the brows of these hard working actors. The choice to use actual footage of the Lindbergh baby (who actually was a toddler) is quite affecting, in fact, so much so that our attention is drawn to the screen and away from the actors. Perhaps a better spot for this device can be found.
But, all in all, I recommend this new show as a highly entertaining and interesting evening in the theatre. I am sure that this piece will be done again in another incarnation and you can say that you saw "Baby Case" when it was, as it were, just in its infancy.
For tickets call the box office at (215) 922-1122 or log onto Arden's Website at:
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