It’s both bawdy and beautiful, and for a few bucks, you can “meet [‘em] round the corner, in a half an hour!” Sugar Babies is the sweet-toothed confection currently closing out Le Petit’s 90th season. “All Burlesque! Live Girls! No Plot!” would make for a great sandwich board outside the lobby on St. Peter Street. This entertaining trifle of a show faithfully recreates a night in the fictitious Gaiety Burlesque Theater (though the real Gaiety Theater was where the first Comus Ball was held in 1857.)
This plotless show, originally a vehicle for screen stars Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney, bowed at the Mark Hellinger Theater on Broadway in 1979 for a healthy 3 year run, alongside a whistle-stop national tour that played for over four years, berthing twice at the Saenger, including an appearance with original stars Rooney & Miller. Incidentally (and with digression), Sugar Babies was the last successful show to play the Hellinger, a notorious flop house, now a church.
Sugar Babies is all fun, with a jaunty score full of Jimmy McHugh standards such as “Don’t Blame Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “I’m Riding High”, plus several others written for the show. With great songs and some really snappy choreography by Karen Hebert (who also stars as the Prima Donna), there’s nary a dull moment in the show.
The “scenes” are your typical Burlesque and Vaudeville shtick: the classic “Meet me ‘round the corner, in a half an hour” sketch, knife throwing, comic men and talking girls, and a courtroom scene straight out of Gypsy Rose Lee’s act. The original production included a dog act and several others that have been cut or changed for Le Petit. What makes me wonder, if they did cut material from the show, did the original have a longer running time than Le Petit’s 2 hours and 40 minutes? That is this show’s biggest problem: for a musical without an integrated plot, how can it be so long? Maybe it was a case of opening night jitters, a few flubs and having Becky Allen in the audience to help crack up the cast? But this show could use some tightening. Otherwise, the performances run the gamut from good to sensational.
As the Top Banana or Star Comic part, Dane Rhodes plays Dane (they all use their real names on stage) – the Mickey Rooney part. He tells the majority of the dirty jokes (though there are plenty of them to go around) and generally gets to play the class clown; Rhodes’ merriment seems to know no bounds. There’s little subtlety about what he’s up to: make you laugh and try and get himself laid at the same time. Rhodes is hysterical, but so is his Second Banana, Michael Sullivan, particularly in the “Meet Me Round the Corner” sketch. Also chewing the scenery (there’s much of this) is the versatile Bob Edes as the Character Man. Edes is consistently one of the best character actors around, and in this show, he’s the funniest, dirtiest concession vendor you’ll ever meet! Watching the show, I almost wondered if maybe Edes and Rhodes should switch parts? Not that Dane Rhodes is miscast, I just think it would be interesting to watch these two comic masters at work, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in a dirtier, funnier version of True West.
Robert Richardson makes for a great straight man, leading in to some of Rhodes and Sullivan’s funniest moments. Always in superb voice, Richard Hutton lets loose a little bit as the matinee idol Juvenile, crooning the sweet “Sally” and “The Cuban Love Song”. The boys get the schtick, but the girls get something better: the best costumes and numbers. Trina Beck is the soubrette, plucked from the chorus to wear the least clothing and get her share of star moments: “Warm and Willing”, “Sally”, and “Keeping Myself Available to You” show off Ms. Beck’s nearly infinite talents, Beck, along with Brandi Cotogno and Bridget Lyons sing the jaunty “Sugar Baby Bounce” – in a tribute to sister acts commonly found in Vaudeville. Also of note: the funny Casey Leigh Thompson and Angela Papale with Karen, Bob, and Dane in the Little Red Schoolhouse sketch.
With Mat Grau in tow, a zebra-striped luggage staircase, and divine duds by Roy Haylock, Karen Hebert makes a stunning entrance in the torchy “Don’t Blame Me”. It isn’t torchy for long, as the train of Ms. Hebert’s skirt is ripped away and the dance heats up. Surprisingly, Hebert is extremely tentative on stage, although her guiding hand can be felt among the creative work with staging. Sugar Babies soars during most of the numbers, and its hard-working ensemble taps, glides, bumps and grinds its way through a lot of large-sized production numbers like “Down at the Gaiety Burlesque” / “Mr. Banjo Man” – minus the greasepaint, but replete with black-lit banjos and gloves. With fourteen Sugar Babies tapping away on stage, the tiny stage of Le Petit seems nearly overwhelmed with chorines. Add to it the Gaiety Quartet – Mat Grau, Rich Arnold, J. Michael Tramontin and Bryan Wagar – these talented guys harmonize and tap throughout the show, working for peanuts next to the glories of the American Girl.
Although this production is slavishly reproduced from the original production in typical Le Petit gusto (like it or not, that’s the modus operandi chez Le Petit) – choreographer Karen Hebert, and co-directors Sonny Borey and Derek Franklin have no doubt put this cast through their paces. The orchestra, led by Franklin sounds great, and Le Petit seems to have managed their sound issues – other shows this season using the newly constructed, spacious pit have mostly sounded “canned”.
However, these consummate pros seem to miss the coherence that brings it all together – having assembled parts that dazzle – the tight-knit ensemble, the wonderfully vaudevillian sets by Chad Talkington -- complete with a golden, Empire velvet curtain reminiscent of the glory days of theatre, detailed perspective drops, a true Vaudeville ad-filled fire curtain -- the gorgeous costuming by no less than Carolyn Barrois, Regina Schlotzhauer, Roy Haylock, Cecile Casey Covert, (and the dazzling “Uncle Sammy” costumes by) Linda Fried – the parts are greater than the sum total. Perhaps the faults lie mostly with the structure of Sugar Babies itself, never going “backstage” to glean anything from its characters once they step into the wings. Regardless, audiences are sure to delight in this mammoth-sized show, full of off-color humor, gorgeous showgirls, and the smashing songbook of Jimmy McHugh.