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Theater review: ‘Hello! My Baby’ at the Rubicon Theatre

March 28, 2012 |  3:15 pm

“Hello! My Baby”
Dramatist Cheri Steinkellner shrewdly sets her thoroughly charming new jukebox musical in a time before there were jukeboxes, in order to connect a new generation with a fading, uniquely American cultural legacy. Developed and launched with brio by Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, Steinkellner’s “Hello! My Baby” is a ticket back to New York’s Tin Pan Alley heyday, when people enjoyed popular music the old fashioned way — they played it. 

Feeding the public’s appetite for popular hits back then provided livelihoods for the scrappy young sheet music pluggers whose streetwise story lines Steinkellner serviceably employs to thread (with occasional plot-advancing additional lyrics) more than 30 classic tunes by such diverse songwriting talents as George and Ira Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan, Eubie Blake and of course Irving Berlin, who began his own musical career as a plugger. 

The production abounds with promising fresh-faced talent, starting with Ciaran McCarthy as the neighborhood’s cocky top plugger, Mickey McKee, an aspiring lyricist whose dream of emulating Berlin’s success is hampered by one small detail — he can’t write music. The proverbial luck of the Irish pairs him with Nelly (Evie Hutton), a Jewish factory worker and pianist who’s more than his match in talent and spunk. 

Naturally, it’s not all smooth sailing in their professional and romantic partnership. The popular music that helped forge our turn-of-the-20th century melting pot was inseparable from the struggles faced by the era’s immigrant population: poverty, prejudice, crime and class inequality all figure prominently in the show’s narrative context. As upper crust siblings whose eyes are opened to social injustice, supporting leads Lilli Babb and Will Sevedge bring operatic finesse to their poignant “If You Were the Only Girl in the World.” 

Brushes with serious topics notwithstanding, there’s an indefeatable joy, whimsy and optimism to the piece, crystallized in Mickey and Nelly’s duet in “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” Veteran performers George Wendt, George Ball and Kristine Zbornik lend polished expertise, but the show belongs to its entire 22-member ensemble, impressively coalesced into a precision unit by director Brian McDonald and choreographer Lee Martino. Seeing the spirits of Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and the songwriters of a bygone era reflected in these young faces, you can score one for continuity in this self-styled “new-fashioned musical.”

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“Hello! My Baby,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 15. $35-64. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo: Evie Hutton (center), Ciaran McCarthy (center right) and ensemble. Credit: Daniel P. Lam.


 
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