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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Arthur Laurents Retools His Hallelujah, Baby!

Suzzanne Douglas
Thanks to some delightful performances, a sprightly, tuneful score by the estimable Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a slim but musical comedy-savvy book by the equally estimable Arthur Laurents, there is enough solid entertainment on stage at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse to provide much pleasure and delight. For lovers of the golden age of the Broadway musical, this rarely revived 1967 Tony Award winner for Best Musical is essential viewing.

Author-director Arthur Laurents, with the help of additional lyrics by Amanda Green, has retooled the work so that it is now performed by a cast of nine (less than one-third the size of the original Broadway cast) on a unit set with projected backgrounds. Some decry the trend to create downsized versions of Broadway musicals. However, given the widespread belief that a full-scale revival would not be commercially viable, Laurents' efforts to give Hallelujah, Baby! a renewed life in venues which could not mount a large scale Broadway musical extravaganza is commendable. Given the high quality elements at hand and the work done so far, Laurents appears to be on the road to success.

Hallelujah, Baby recounts the social and economic progress of the smart and doughty 25-year-old Georgina (Suzzanne Douglas), who does not age as she passes through the twenties, the Depression, World War II, and the blossoming of the civil rights movement and the era of black empowerment.

At the start, Georgina's mother (Ann Duquesnay) strongly advises her daughter that she would best keep her place as a maid on a South Carolina estate, but Georgina is determined to get out and seek a career as an entertainer. Through the succeeding decades, we see her dancing as a "Congo Cutie" in a Harlem boite (the small cast prohibits a full chorus line), involved with the '30s U.S. Communist movement, entertaining World War II troops in a USO show in the Jim Crow south, and finely emerging as a coveted Cafe Society singing star. However, it is not until the '60s that Georgina comes to realize that her success is empty unless she devotes energy to elevate the status of all of her race ("Success doesn't make you colorless, Georgina. Nothing can and nothing will").

Along the path of her journey, Georgina shares the changing canvas of each decade with her mother, her black boyfriend Clem (Curtiss I'Cook), her white boyfriend Harvey (Stephen Zinnato) and a few other friends and acquaintances - all of whom, just as Georgina, change with the times, but do not age.

There is a short epilogue in which during about two minutes of stage time we are taken into the seventies and "the new century." Essentially, all that happens here is that Georgina is invited to sing at the White House where she is insultingly asked on the behalf of the President to sing a spiritual for an encore. Just which President does Laurents have in mind? It is a dated notion which I guess is meant to make the point that "you've come a long way, baby, but you still have a long way to go." As the whole show is designed to lead us from the post-bellum South to the emergence of successful blacks abetting the growing and militant civil rights movement in the 1960s, the perfunctory and silly epilogue only detracts from what has gone before.

Laurents has long felt that the original production (which did not recoup its investment despite a 293 performance run which ended before it won the Tony for Best Musical) was too soft in its take on black social progress during the first six decades or so of the twentieth century. It was originally written with Lena Horne in mind. When the steely Horne opted out of the project, it was rewritten to suit the more youthful and bubbly Leslie Uggams.

Laurents is now attempting to add levels of darker intensity in this production. However, the music and lyrics are in the infectiously bright and bubbly style of musical comedy, and his efforts in this area reduce the charm and good spirits of the show without adding much of significance in the way of depth or insight.

Hallelujah, Baby! is inherently a bright, joyful bauble of entertainment buttressed with an original book (how rare is that) that lightly and thinly delivers a warm, spirited social message and history lesson. Just listen to the score, and you will know that it cannot support a darker view. Just as in 1967, the book suffers from the fact that the roles are based on two-dimensional archetypes rather than three-dimensional human beings. Some will be less kind and describe them as stereotypes, but they are clearly presented with affection and good will. I can only hope that race relations have advanced to the point where all can enjoy Hallelujah, Baby in the good spirit in which it was originally created.

An excellent example occurs early when Suzzanne Douglas sings the delightful "My Own Morning." It establishes from the beginning that Georgina will not be satisfied to live her life as a maid in someone else's house. In it, she describes her dream for her future:

Where every hour is golden,
No one to whom I'm beholden
A morning that really belongs to me

It is written to charm, and to endear Georgina to us. It need not be sung with angry determination to establish Georgina's admirable backbone. The music and lyrics simply do not support such an interpretation. It feels to me as if the indomitable Laurents is continuing a 37-year-old argument with Styne, Comden and Green, and, possibly, original director, Burt Shevelove.

Several songs have been cut from the now 54-minute first act. The delightful "The Slice," in which Clem has to surrender the money that he won in a card game to a crooked cop, has been excised. Possibly, it has been cut because Laurents felt that it demeaned Clem (although it is clear that it is the racist environment that has deprived Clem of his manhood), or because Laurents wanted to blame pure racism for his not being able to put a down payment on a house. Whatever the thinking behind its omission, Curtiss I'Cook and the audience are deprived of a delightful show tune. "Tomorrow is Another Day," along with "Watch My Dust" (Clem) and "I Wanted to Change Him" (Georgina) which were cut in the course of Baby!'s Broadway run, are also absent here.

Another rousing song, "When the Weather's Better," runs throughout the show as sort of a theme song. It is not on the original cast album, although it sounds well suited to the umbrella motif employed both now and originally. Although I did not note Amanda Green's specific contributions, I can say that any new lyrics blended seamlessly with the fine originals.

As a result of revisions in the book, the secondary characters fail to stand out as individuals despite the game efforts of a strong supporting cast.

Suzzanne Douglas brings her powerful voice and strong stage presence to the role of Georgina. Closing the first act with the plaintive "Being Good," brightly seizing the day with the march "Now's the Time" and driving home the title song, she commands the stage. When director Laurents allows her to deliver "My Own Morning" in the style in which it was written, her performance will be completely successful.

Curtiss I'Cook skillfully and believably navigates Clem through incarnations as Pullman porter, waiter, political activist, soldier and civil rights leader with aplomb and a strong stage presence. His singing voice is strong and pleasant and, along with Douglas and Zinnato, he beautifully sings the poignant, "Talking to Yourself."

Stephen Zinnato sings and acts well. However, his Harvey is somewhat petulant and lacking in charm. This may well be intentional. Zinnato's interpretation certainly makes it appear that Georgina's difficulty in choosing between Harvey and Clem arises from her having been brought up with the notion that black men are weak and unreliable.

Ann Duquesnay as Georgina's Momma delivers a powerhouse performance. Wry and sassy, her Momma delightfully keeps her tongue planted firmly in her cheek as she plays the happy, shuffling Negro for her white employers. After Georgina becomes a star, Duquesnay blends a fine comic presence with her powerful clarion tones to stop the show with the rich and richly comic delight, "I Don't Know Where She Got It." It doesn't matter a whit that her performance gainsays the lyric because that is the way it should be in musical comedy.

Laurie Gamache, Crystal Noelle, Todd Cerveris, Randy Donaldson and Gerry McIntyre are to be commended for solid performances in a variety of supporting roles.

The unit set (a platform, curtains and three steps down an elevated upstage to the rounded at the front downstage floor) by Jerome Sirlin gets the job done. However, his projections shown on the back wall at the center are too few in number as well as lacking in evocativeness and detail. Theoni V. Aldredge designed the appropriate and eye appealing costumes. Musical Director/Pianist David Alan Bunn has provided new orchestrations for the seven-piece orchestra. This is certainly an adequate number of musicians to convey the heart of the original arrangements in a theatre the size of George Street. Therefore, I find it difficult to understand the inappropriate and distracting use of a synthesizer.

Reservations notwithstanding, it is a pleasure to see Hallelujah, Baby! back on stage in the hands of this first rate cast. Although some work still remains to be done, 86-year-old theatre legend Arthur Laurents deserves our thanks for restoring it to us.

Hallelujah, Baby! continues performances (Tues.-Sat. at 8 P.M., Sun. at 2 P.M. and & 8 P.M. - 2 P.M. only on 11/7 - with additional performances at 2 P.M. on Thurs. 10/14 & 11/4 and Sat. 10/9, 23 & 30 & 11/6) through November 7, 2004 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online

Hallelujah, Baby book and direction by Arthur Laurents; Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; additional lyrics by Amanda Green.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Georgina.........Suzzanne Douglas
Tip...............Randy Donaldson
Tap................Gerry McIntyre
Momma...............Ann Duquesnay
Clem...............Curtiss I'Cook
Harvey............Stephen Zinnato
Character Women....Laurie Gamache
Character Men.......Todd Cerveris
Chloe, Maid........Crystal Noelle

Hallelujah, Baby! is a co-production with the Arena Stage of Washington, D.C.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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