WOOSTER — If there were nothing more to the Ohio Light Opera's production of "Babes in Arms" than the singing and dancing, those would be way more than enough.
The team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart provided the music and lyrics for this 1937 work, the OLO production of which opened Thursday afternoon at Freedlander Theater on The College of Wooster campus. And in this case, the team also wrote the book — the genesis of a whole genre of "let's put on a show" themes — the unlikely story of a group of teenagers (we're told they're under 21) who are left alone for the summer while their parents go out to revive vaudeville.
Without parental oversight, the sheriff says they'll go to a work camp (which much be something like summer camp meets juvenile detention).
But voila! Their leader — a fresh-faced, earnest type named Valentine LaMar (Spencer Reese) — hatches a wacky plan to — you guessed it — put on a show in his parents' barn, ostensibly to raise enough money to allow the kids to live, still alone, but with better financing.
There's the issue of production costs, which might be paid with money from the show's villain, an uncomfortably racist character named Lee Calhoun (Jonathan Heller), who will only front the cash if the show is an all-white production.
In 2018, that one piece of the plot doesn't seem to jibe with the rest of this fairly happy-go-lucky saga.
"Babes in Arms," in motion picture form, was another in a series of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland pairings, but the stage production bares little resemblance (which is OK, considering the film has an entire production number done in black face). The music is a full chapter of the Rodgers-and-Hart songbook — highlighted by "Where or When" and "The Lady is a Tramp" — but missing "Good Morning" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
All that being said, the Ohio Light Opera gives the show more than its due, with some fantastic singing and a whole lot of dancing, a growing and very welcome trend over the past few years that owes its success to Reese, who choreographed and also serves as assistant stage director here.
As Val, Reese is more than sophisticated than the Rooney version, a better singer and a dancer at a higher level entirely. His imprint is everywhere on this production and nowhere does it shine brighter than in ensemble pieces that feature "the gang" and especially in the "Peter's Journey" ballet, a veering from the main plot to explore how the life of the Irish Sweepstakes-winning Peter (Timothy McGowan) might go once he leaves to make his way in the world.
The ballet pops up sort of out of nowhere in the script, but it is beautifully done and gives the OLO a first look at the estimable talents of newcomer Timothy McGowan, who is more than memorable in the role.
Also gliding their way across the stage are the twirling, whirling duo of Benjamin Krumreig and Gretchen Windt, who own the stage during "You Are So Fair." And it would be criminal to leave out the audience-wowing tap dance talents of Wooster's own Adam Kirk, who partners with newcomer DeShaun Tost for "Light On Our Feet," a homage to the legendary Nicholas Brothers.
Sarah Best gets the Garland role, but makes it seem as though it was written for her, turning in wonderful renditions of "The Lady is a Tramp" and particularly the standard "My Funny Valentine." The score also gives fellow mezzo soprano Alexa Devlin a chance to let it rip as Baby Rose leading the ensemble in "Way Out West" and even more so in "Johnny One-Note."
The production is built on the solid foundation providing by a very hardworking orchestra, under the energetic direction of Steven Byess.
Watching the "Babes in Arms" ensemble, it is impossible not to notice that the veterans — Reese, Best, Devlin, Windt and Krumreig — and joined by a number of new faces in their first or second years with the company. As the OLO reaches 40, that alone is evidence the shows can and will go on and on.
Congratulations to artistic director Steven Daigle, who stage directed "Babes in Arms". It is, as audiences have come to expect, a feast for both eye and ear.
Reporter Tami Mosser can be reached at 330-287-1655 or firstname.lastname@example.org.