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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
The Arden Theatre Company presents a lavish world premiere musical about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Whaat?? a musical about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder? The first couple of people invited to accompany me turned me down. The concept is a turn-off to some potential audience members. Is it a serious lapse in taste? Michael Ogborn's musical is about tabloid journalism and news as entertainment and obsession. Certainly even young audience members will have heard of Charles A. Lindbergh. His solo flight across the Atlantic made him the number one guy in America. When his child was kidnapped (1932) it was the biggest story in the country for over two years. The intense public scrutiny and the media circus trial resemble a certain modern high-profile story, which featured that white Bronco in a slow chase across the TV screen. Or the press and public buzz over Princess Diana's death--times ten.
The show capitalizes on 'edgy-guilty-horrified' mixed with fascination. A photographer (Richard Ruiz) breaks into the morgue and snaps pictures of the baby's corpse to the tune of "A Picture of You." Then he quips, "Say cheese, baby." The truck driver who found the body opens a vaudeville act. He says, "I found the Lindbergh baby. I'm a celebrity". This stuff is very "Springtime for Hitler." It's also reminiscent of Natural Born Killers, a parody of the pursuit of publicity, and the exploitative Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
With its macabre subject matter and snappy production numbers like "Wake Up New York," sung by Walter Winchell (Scott Greer) together with a box office clerk (Barr), a gas station attendant (Lyle), and an ensemble of newspeople, this stuff is mind bogglingly off kilter. The surprising part is the sensitivity with which the Lindbergh family is treated. Songs like "Dirty Dishes" (one more sorrow at the Morrow house and tarnished silverware) and "Lullaby" (sung by Sharon Sampieri as Mrs. Lindbergh) are simple and heart-wrenching, with compelling tunes. Lindbergh (Jeffrey Coon) sings "Someday my son, we'll travel over the ocean. Someday I'll teach you to fly." As he takes his baby's ashes with him on a test flight, he sings, "This is the day I teach you to fly." It's an almost too touching counterpoint to the hysteria and hurly burly, which this show captures.
The story is told through musical vignettes and narration from all different sources in addition to the main narrator, Walter Winchell. There's an interaction of talk, dance, and song, and dozens of projected headlines, pictures, dates and titles. Scenes melt into one another in a continuous flow. The libretto is incredibly clever and shows its careful research without getting pedantic. The song, "Baby Case" is a little masterpiece. There is a lot of wonderful music like "All God's Children." (All God's children go up that ladder someday.) The actors and singers are all talented and well directed.
The gray tones of the costume design work well, in fact the whole production is just amazingly well done. It's funny, painful, powerful, thought-provoking, and entertaining. Is it long enough after the fact that we can't be accused of voyeurism? Are we just the latest audience succumbing to the "give me more" appeal of horrific news stories? Or is it OK because it's art and a comment on public behavior?
The musical is based on the actual story. There is footage of the crowds outside the courthouse in Flemington, NJ buying "Trial of the Century" souvenirs, including autopsy photos and small ladders (models of the ladder the kidnapper used). It is unsettling to look at how people (we) behave in times like these--the insatiable desire for information and the need to be a part of it all. Ginger Rogers (Becky Gulsvig) shows up in Flemington, dances with the news reporters and sings a pseudo-German song. The song is a comment on Bruno Hauptman's accent. (Ben Dibble as Hauptman has a very nice voice and does a very musical theatre version of a German accent.) It is Hauptman, you will recall, who went to the chair for the murder.
This show does not say he did it or didn't do it. But it does have moments of Hauptman apologia, like a moving rendition of "Scapegoat" sung by Dibble. Mrs. Hauptman (Kristen Purcell, who sings and acts very well) receives a sympathetic portrayal. A number of other possiblities for guilty parties are entertained, despite the fact that the evidence against Hauptman was pretty damning. We later discover that some evidence was manufactured and some witnesses lied. So this is a pretty even handed treatment.
has been a long time in the making--it was written several years ago and workshopped more than once. They took a lot of trouble with it--and it shows. Is this just another belated dimension of the media hype? I can't say. But it's a first-rate musical production and I loved it. It's enjoyable to watch and a treat to hear -- among the best productions I have seen this year.
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