For the climax of their season, MasterVoices, formerly the Collegiate Chorale, under Ted Sperling’s Artistic Direction and knowing baton, resurrected composer Victor Herbert and librettist Glen MacDonough’s operetta “Babes in Toyland” (1903), an unapologetic period piece, without the coherence that “Show Boat,” “Oklahoma,” and later musicals have led us to expect, and favored it, in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall on April 27, with their full dedication and commitment, even while, through narration delivered by Blair Brown, acknowledging its oddities, illogic, and non-sequiturs. The result was a charming, high-level vocal and theatrical account of the work and helped put some of the familiar melodies into a context, though not necessarily the original one. The concert adaptation was by Sperling and Joe Keenan, and the script and additional, in some cases updated, lyrics were Keenan’s. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s played the score. Sperling directed as well as conducted.
Uncle Barnaby (Jonathan Freeman), a leering, ruthless villain—one of the piece’s four bad guys—wants to get his mitts on niece Jane and nephew Alan’s (the sprightly Lauren Worsham and Christopher Fitzgerald) inheritance and is not above murder to get at it. Barnaby hires Toyland’s Toymaker (Bill Irwin), who presides over such innocent toys as a cow, a rooster, and a ‘mama’ doll, to make dangerous, lethal toys, which the Toymaker, not so benign after all, is only too happy to do. The other characters, drawn from nursery rhymes, accept as their mission the rescue of Jane and Alan. The principal participants in this task are Contrary Mary—Mary-Mary, Quite Contrary—(Kelli O’Hara, her soprano at its purest) and Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son (jauntily portrayed by Jay Armstrong Johnson, recently New York City Opera’s Candide). Jane and Alan are subjected to as many perils as Pauline and disguise is rife, among victims and heroes alike.
There are lilting waltzes, love songs and such, aplenty and ‘comic’ dialect numbers that have to be abbreviated and cleaned up to make them palatable today. Topical references were retained, discarded, or augmented, as appropriate. O’Hara introduced herself with “Barney O’Flynn,” a dulcet love song, addressed to a fictitious love, repeatedly referred to, in Gaelic, as “mavournin” (my darling). She also impersonated a newspaper advice columnist, “Beatrice Barefacts”—Beatrice Fairfax, as in the Gershwin song “But not for Me”—to enlist the assistance of the journalist’s biggest fan, Toyland’s Chief Inspector Marmaduke (a daffy Michael Kostroff), and a French Mademoiselle, and ultimately eluded the clutches of the louche and amorous Uncle Barnaby. Armstrong’s Tom and the MasterVoices consoled Little Bo-Peep with “Never Mind, Bo-Peep, We Will Find Your Sheep” AKA “Don’t Cry, Bo-Peep,” and sang a melancholy ballad “With Downcast Eye,” which would not be out of place in Gilbert and Sullivan. Mary and Tom collaborated on ‘title song,’ “Toyland (Little girl- and boy-land),” a gentle paean to childhood.
Worsham’s Jane, cross-dressing at her first appearance, offered a delightful waltz, “Jane” and, with the chorus, puzzled over mind-twisting math problems in “I Can’t Do the Sum.” Fitzgerald’s Alan’s first appearance was in gypsy drag as “Floretta,” a fortune teller, sporting a rainbow babushka, and offering an extravagant Romany rhapsody. Fitzgerald also played a toy soldier in the most famous number, “March of the Toys,” which found the chorus tooting the trumpet calls in this otherwise instrumental selection. The many verses of Alan’s “Song of the Poet,” with chorus, variations on “Rockabye Baby,” were cut to three, one in Cockney English, the second in jazzy American, and the last in operatic Italian, with nods to the “Lucia di Lammermoor” sextet and Luciano Pavarotti, wielding a white handkerchief. Tom and Jane celebrated their reunion with “Our Castle in Spain,” an evocative Iberian duet, while Mary and Alan offered a dim view of wedded bliss in their comic “Before and After.”
Barnaby’s cronies, the loopy Roderigo (Jeffrey Schecter) and Gonzorgo (Chris Sullivan), took time out of the villainy to play a bear and a spider in the pantomime, “The Spider’s Den and the Birth of the Butterfly,” which concluded Act One, and joined forces with the Widow Piper (Nina Hennessey), Tom’s mother, for “If I Were a Man like That,” expanded beyond a verse about pirates to twit the Wild West and Donald Trump. After an optimistic “The Moon Will Help You Out,” following the Toymaker’s demise and preceding Uncle Barnaby’s, Mary and Alan and Jane and Tom enjoyed a happy ending at last, to the tune of “Barney O’Flynn,” in reprise.
Announced from the stage and in the printed program was the inauguration of MasterVoices’ “Roger Rees Fund for Musical Theater,” named for the chorus’ late Artistic Associate and designed to encourage their further exploration of music theater works worthy of revival. Visit www.mastervoices.org
to find out more.