Baby Case, composer-lyricist-librettist Michael Ogborn's theatrical musical fantasia on the subject of the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son, gets its world premiere at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company Oct. 16 following previews that began Oct. 11.
Philly native Ogborn continued to work on the long-aborning musical over the summer, following a workshop at the Arden June 11-23. Directed by Arden's producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen, Baby Case, boasting a cast of 24 (playing almost 150 roles), kicks off the nonprofit's 2001-2002 season on the F. Otto Haas Stage. Performances continue to Nov. 11. It's the first world-premiere musical for the Arden.
The company includes Aaron Ramey, Ben Dibble (as Bruno Hauptmann), William Whitehead, Charles Antalosky, Gary Giles, Jeff Coon (as Lindbergh), Krissy Fraelich, Kristen Purcell, Marybeth Gorman, Scott Greer, Sharon Sampieri (as Anne Morrow Lindbergh), Todd Waddington, Suzanne H. Smart, Tony Braithwaite, Tracie Higgins, Victoria Matlock, Scott Langdon, Ryan Bristol, Richard Ruiz, Denise Whalen, Ben Hickernell, Michael Thomas Holmes, Jennie Eisenhower, Becky Gulsvig.
Ogborn is a New York songwriter and Philadelphia native who saw theatrical tension and juicy characters in the media and public hysteria that followed the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in New Jersey in 1932. The show, designed by Tobin Rothlein (video), John Stephen Hoey (lighting), Jorge Cousineau (sound), Tony Cisek (set) and Richard St. Clair (costumes), includes video projections as it introduces servants, accomplices, the accused killer, his wife, news mogul William Randolph Hearst, commentator Walter Winchell, the police and others, all singing ruefully and satirically — in hybrid style that is part pastiche and part pop — about one of the great crimes of the 20th century. The musical raises questions and ultimately suggests it is unclear if justice was served.
The murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's son, Charles Jr., caused a sensation in 1932. Mother Anne Morrow Lindbergh is more central in the show than Charles, Ogborn told Playbill On-Line, partly because a modern audience may be turned off by the aviator because he was sympathetic to the Nazis.
In preparation for the show, the cast took a trip to Trenton, NJ, to the New Jersey State Police Museum, and the court house in Flemington, NJ, where the case was tried. At the police museum, the troupe viewed artifacts and pieces of evidence in the chilling crime. At the court house, the cast members were allowed into Hauptmann's cell, and stood in the court room that had once been filled with noise and tension.
"Considering the magnitude of the case and the magnitude of the legend that resulted from it, I imagined a place much bigger," Ogborn told Playbill On-Line. "What struck me was that it was a very small [court] room. They said there were 400 people in that court room on any given day, and it's not that big. It amazed me that something this big could take place in such a small town. The idea that the world descended on this tiny little hamlet — that's what got me. That the reverberations could come from such a tiny, early 19th-century town."
Composer-lyricist-librettist Ogborn had a Philly hit in the comic musical revue, Box Office of the Damned, produced by 1812 Productions at the Arden in 1999, but Baby Case is more ambitious, he said.
"This is a more epic story," Ogborn said. "It's highly theatrical The prologue is the [trans-Atlantic] flight of Lindbergh, his marriage to Anne Morrow, and the birth of their child, Charles Jr. Scene One, the baby is kidnapped."
Through shifting points of view and different storytelling styles, Baby Case "explores the nation's fascination with every detail of the case, regardless of how bizarre or unfounded, from the crime to the execution of Bruno Hauptmann," Ogborn said.
At turns satirical and ironic, the new piece "satirizes the personalities that rose and descended infamously in the media circus and court proceedings. There's definitely a tabloid quality to it. The story is told through the eyes of the people who were on the periphery of the event, or had something to do with it — for example, a maid, police, witnesses."
Larry Blank, one of a team of orchestrators on Broadway's The Producers, handles the show's orchestrations. Musical director and conductor is Vincent Di Mura. Denise DiRenzo is choreographer.
Baby Case has had two workshop at Arden, and before the troupe's involvement had a 1998 reading in Manhattan with Jason Workman and Diane Fratantoni as the Lindberghs. Pieces of the show have also been performed in the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
Tickets range $22-$36. Arden Theatre Company performs at 40 N. Second Street in Philadelphia. For information, call (215) 922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.
The Arden produces five mainstage shows and two children's shows per season on two "black box" stages, the F. Otto Haas Stage (360 seats) and the Arcadia Stage (175 seats), in the heart of Philadelphia's Old City. The company is committed to new works as well as classic and contemporary plays and musicals.
— By Kenneth Jones