You could say that the first mistake director Arthur Laurents made was the choice to use a projector screen as a background, instead of a real set. Or, perhaps it was his repetitive use of the same clichéd jokes and dialogue in the script. In fact, you could blame the lackluster Hallelujah, Baby on a lot of things, but to cover them all, Laurents isn't the only one at fault"practically everyone in the production is.
Hallelujah, Baby seems constantly confused as to what it wants to be"a light-hearted look at the rise of a black female performer? A serious, dramatic piece analyzing the civil rights movement and its effects on America? Or, an intense work about an interracial couple that could not be, and the ensuing love triangle? Baby attempts to encompass all of these plots, but its core flaw is just that"it never becomes one or the other, and never fully grasps the potential that each possesses.
Starring Suzzanne Douglas as Georgina, Baby follows the aspiring performer through a variety of time periods, from the early 20th century until present-day. Georgina describes herself as "25, give or take,” and frequently speaks directly to the audience, an approach reminiscent of the kind that '90s TV shows like Saved by the Bell and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air also employed. However, here the method is not charming or cute as it was in Bayside or Bel-Air; instead, it seems almost unprofessional. Georgina also describes her dream of becoming a singer, despite her mother Momma's (Ann Duquesnay) objections. Baby moves forward in time, documenting Georgina's struggle in various time periods, centering on '20s Harlem, the Depression '30s, '40s Georgia, and so on. Of course, there is also an underlying love story in the plot, between Georgina and her on-again, off-again fiancé Clem (the charmingly handsome Curtiss I'Cook) and Harvey (Stephen Zinnato), the white man who takes a chance with her act and falls in love with her in the process.
Woven together with song and dance numbers, Baby consistently falls short on evoking a true emotional response from the audience"mainly because of its own identity issues. Laurents' work starts in a more musical format, with songs performed by all characters; while Douglas's singing feels at times forced and flat, Duquesnay steals the show with pieces about her childhood during slavery and the cost of hope. As the play progresses, however, the songs seem more forced and random, as the play takes a more serious, socio-political turn. No longer just a story about Georgina and her woes with success, Baby swiftly begins to analyze race relations between blacks and whites, using Georgina's relationships with Clem and Harvey as a microcosm for American society. Although Laurents' efforts to expand the play's relevance are not improper, their abruptness seems strained and simulated.
The phony feeling continues past the play's plot and into the character portrayals themselves. Although Douglas gives an overall believable performance, her attempts at tears, anger, or any other extreme emotion fall flat. It is in her interaction with Clem, or I'Cook, that they both truly shine. Douglas's optimism and hope counteract well with I'Cook's frustration and anger at the social system, and the two create a sort of harmonious juxtaposition of opinions. Other performances, however, vary in their extent of credibility. For example, Duquesnay's portrayal of Momma is outstanding: her accent, dialogue delivery and overall bearing are formidable in their degree of skill. In contrast, Zinnato's Harvey seems cheesy and formulated"his presence seems trite and predatory, especially when he exaggeratedly smells Douglas's handkerchief in one scene. It's not romantic, it's just creepy.
The last aspect of Hallelujah, Baby which feels slightly off-kilter is its complete lack of a set. There is no background to be spoken of, except a projector screen that scrolls down from the ceiling behind the actors. The screen depicts images which are meant to be associated with each time period, such as a bar sign for '20s Harlem and a soup kitchen line for the Depression '30s. The approach, in theory, could have worked, if only the pictures being projected didn't seem Photoshop-ed five minutes before the play started. The images, in all their neon, blurry glory, time and again seem completely inappropriate.
Although Hallelujah, Baby tries to deliver on a variety of levels"romantic, comedic, and dramatic"its inability to decide on one causes them all to fall under par. With lackluster singing numbers, an inadequate set, and ineffective character chemistry, Baby is nothing to shout about.
Hallelujah, Baby is currently playing at the Kreeger at Arena Stage, through February 13, 2005. Arena's FiveTwentyFive tickets cost $10 and are available to anyone between the ages of five and 25 with valid ID. A limited number are available until 5:25 p.m. the day of evening performances and the day before weekend matinees. They are not available for weekday matinees. Regular student tickets are $25.
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