KPBS AIRDATE: November 17, 1993
Remember that timeless line, “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!” Well, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney may have popularized it, but SDSU has brought it back. The source is “Babes in Arms,” penned by Broadway’s most popular songwriting team of the 1930s, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Perhaps better known for its MGM movie incarnation, the 1937 “Babes in Arms” was subjected to later rewrites and revivals, in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
For its high-spirited production, the SDSU Drama Department really did its homework, coming up with a composite of all the prior scripts underscored by spunky and unpredictable new vocal and orchestral arrangements by Terry O’Donnell. Of course, he had great stuff to work with: songs like “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Where or When,” “Mountain Greenery,” and “Johnny One-Note.” It’s hard to go wrong with material like that, though it is easy to make it sound tired or trite.
None of that for musical director O’Donnell, orchestra conductor Carmen Maria Dominguez, director Rick Simas, or choreographer Paula Kalustian. This baby hums, with the hottest pit orchestra I’ve heard in some time. And the lively, talented cast of almost 30 stays in constant motion, cavorting around Susan Osborne’s inventive and versatile set, in delightful costumes by Dianne Holly and Nick Reid.
All the leads are strong, but the vocal awards go to Michelle Portch and Nova Cunningham, the two powerhouses who help the hard-working apprentice kids at the summer stock playhouse to mount their little show and get it seen by a big-time producer.
If you like good music, old musicals and a pretty darned polished production, you won’t want to miss “Babes in Arms.” But hurry. It only runs through the weekend.
Also up this weekend is “Santos and Tea,” a work-in-progress by local playwright Evelyn Cruz. This production is part of a new theater season at Centro Cultural de la Raza, in Balboa Park. Headed up by Juan Pazos, a UCSD graduate, the Centro will provide a homebase for alternative Chicano-Latino theater productions. And it’s high time for this border city to have a high profile in Latino theater. Each of the big venues does its part once a year or so, but there’s no place for small, local, independent groups to perform.
With funding from the Centro, the first Latino theater season includes five weekend productions, all in English. Last week was Carlos Morton’s “El Jardín,” which jumped over from SDSU. In this humorous, Chicano rethinking of the story of Genesis, we meet Adám and Éva, and their Maker, the Big Ranchera, a female Dios. The show is stolen by the red-clad, huarache-d Serpiente, Peter Loaiza, who, besides having all the funny lines, has the most presence and the most Chicano sensibility. And that matters here, in a piece that excoriates the European influence and points Latinos back to their Aztec roots.
The production was uneven, and that may be true of the whole Centro program. But it’s something San Diego really needs, and it should enhance and expand the theater audience.
Watch for news of the Centro. Go see its politically charged art exhibits (which should be open for viewing on the night of theater performances, too). Get in on the ground floor of a constructive new addition to the city.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.