Review: ‘Babes in Toyland’ at Carnegie Hall

By Blaise Buckley on 1 May 2017
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While Victor Herbert is hardly a household name today, he was well known to audiences at the turn of the last century. Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland, and began his career as a musician in Vienna so it was not surprising that, when he immigrated to the United States, he became best known for the operettas he composed, including the smash hit, “Babes in Toyland,” which made its debut on the Great White Way in 1903.

The plot is straightforward: Uncle Barnaby schemes to get the inheritance of his young nephew and niece, Alan and Jane, by doing away with them. Along the way, they enlist the help of several Mother Goose characters and Toyland is restored to its normal, happy state of affairs.

Last Thursday, “Babes in Toyland” was presented as a one-night concert by Master Voices, formerly The Collegiate Chorale, as the closing performance of its 75th season at Carnegie Hall. The semi-staged reading was conducted and directed by Ted Sperling, who also worked with Joe Keenan to reduce the lengthy and convoluted libretto to appeal to a modern audience.

It starred some of Broadway’s most recognizable talent. Tony winner and “Orange is the New Black” favorite Blair Brown served as the narrator, in part to help the audience follow along and fill in details that were cut while adding some much needed humor to the piece. Broadway regulars Jeffrey Schecter, who made a name for himself in the revival of “A Chorus Line,” Chris Sullivan, who recently jumped to celebrity status as the male star of “This is Us,” Jonathan Freeman, (Jafar in “Aladdin,” the animated feature and Broadway production), Tony winner Bill Irwin, who is probably more familiar to audiences as Bensons’ therapist on “Law & Order SVU,” and Lauren Worsham, who not long ago delighted audiences with her Broadway debut in “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder,” all gave viable performances that with better directorial guidance could have thrived.

Tony winner Kelli O’Hara and three-time Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald, to no surprise to anyone who has seen them on a stage, downright stole the show. Indeed, a sigh of relief was audible when they re-entered the stage after an absence. It was a treat to have been able to see these stars perform this outdated musical, which would pose great financial risk for any producer to put up for more than a single night.

O’Hara is known to Broadway audiences for dramatic musical roles. She won her Tony award for “The King and I” in 2016, the sixth time she had been nominated. From the moment she entered the stage, her mannerisms and facial expressions showed that her comedic skills can absolutely reach the rafters in Carnegie Hall, a theater larger than any Broadway house.

One of my favorite moments of the night was when Bill Irwin, as the Toymaker, snatched the baton out of the conductor’s hand to conduct “In the Toymaker’s Workshop,” which otherwise was one of many pointless musical numbers. A fantastic casting choice was Jeffrey Schecter in a laughable spider costume: he danced around as if he was Spider-Man while Ms. Brown, who sat stage right for the entire tedious evening, explained to the audience how the scene looked in 1903, noting that a famous acrobat of the era had played the spider and delighted the audience by doing acrobatic tricks at every level of the stage, which must have been quite the sight over 100 years ago.

“Toyland,” the only recognizable tune from the score, was sung so beautifully by Kelli O’Hara and Jay Armstrong Johnson that the entire audience actually stopped chattering for the entire number. Sadly, there was much inconsiderate chatter and noise from theatergoers rummaging through their belongings at almost every other point of the evening.

“Babes in Toyland” may not have been the most exciting night of theater on the stage, but it was well worth seeing thanks to the amazing talent who were so well cast in their roles. It was a once in a lifetime concert opportunity and gave the audience a lifetime of bragging rights to say “I was there when…”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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