Sugar Babies, currently doing a land office business at Le Petit, is a backstage drama without the drama. This curious divertimento attempts to recreate burlesque. No more, no less.
If you expect a saga about a star-struck girl from Iowa who hopes to make it on the Great White Way, you've come to the wrong place. If you want knockabout comedy and solid song and dance, on the other hand, you might be highly satisfied. Most of the audience seemed enthusiastic.
The Sugar Babies of the title are 13 lithe, leggy young ladies who contribute to the overall effect with their risqu, though by no means raunchy, terpsichorean and melodic offerings. That distinction between risqu and raunchy is key to the mood of the piece. In the one real burlesque show that I saw (decades ago in the faded grandeur of a theater in Philadelphia), there was considerably more raunch on display.
One of the standard gags in burlesque has a comedian on stage, rattling on about whatever troubles him. A girl enters. There's an exchange. The girl ends her response with a bump and grind, part of the joke being the incongruity of the gesture. Similar moments occur in Sugar Babies and the pelvic thrusts serve pretty much the same nonsensical purpose -- but the gyrations are unlikely to give the boys in the balcony whip lash, which seemed to be the intent of the original burley girls.
Created by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, among others, Sugar Babies takes place at the Gaiety Burlesque. After the overture, we are serenaded by a song that sets up the concept "I'd be happy if I could only see a good old burlesque show." Next, the stage floods with synchronized beauties in pink and baby blue who beg us to "Let me be your sugar baby."
From here on, the show moves with remarkable smoothness between comic sketches and musical numbers, thanks to directors Derek Franklin and Sonny Borey. I lost count of the painted backdrops and sets, but I had the feeling there must be a backstage crew lying in an exhausted heap by intermission.
The core cast consists of seven performers -- all of whom are listed in the program as themselves, played by themselves. I guess this is an acknowledgment that there are no characters in the usual sense. These troupers are Dane Rhodes, Trina Beck, Richard Hutton, Robert Richardson, Bob Edes Jr., Michael Sullivan and Karen Hebert. To any local theater aficionado, hell starts a poppin' just with that list of names.
Although the performers don't have a role to latch on to, they make the most of their -- sometimes eccentric -- charm and their ability to connect with the audience. In this regard, I must say that Rhodes, who showed a nice touch in song and dance numbers with Hebert, hammed things up a bit in the comic sketches. I was apparently alone in my squeamishness, however, as the audience obviously loved him and gave him warm applause.
Much of Sugar Babies is short blackout comic sketches that end with a rimshot-worthy one-liner. Of course, burlesque abounds in double entendre. Sometimes these bawdy jokes are funny. Sometimes they are real eye-rollers.
Here's one of the more decorous examples. Edes is playing the desk clerk of a hotel. The phone rings. He answers, listens, then says: "What? You got a leak in your bathtub? Okay, go ahead!"
Maybe to appreciate this cock-eyed humor, you have to access your inner child -- the one that snickered on the schoolyard over Tijuana Bibles showing Popeye getting it on with Olive Oyl.
There are moments, however, when Sugar Babies takes flight. Sometimes, the Babies themselves are responsible, like in their train station number. They enter singing and dancing with blue suitcases. Then they get up on the suitcases and tap dance, accompanied by four male conductors.
At the tail end of this number, a pile of luggage is rolled out with a glamorous redhead perched on top. This is the remarkable Karen Hebert, who choreographed the show. Hebert tap dances with a deceptive ease, creating rhythmic patterns that are delightfully complex and delightfully simple at the same time. She also sings some of the best tunes. Beck and Hutton carry dulcet interludes as well.
Cliff Stromeyer designed the Gaiety and its many brief locales. Costumes are a key part of this visual feast and there are a bunch of credits: Carolyn Barrois, Regina Schlotzhauer, Cecile Casy Covert, Linda Fried and Roy Haylock.
In short: Sugar Babies concludes Le Petit's 90th season with high spirits, song and silliness. No story, no pathos, no bathos. Just fun.
- John B. Barrois
- Sugar Babies delights in risqu humour and vaudevillian slapstick.