"Sugar Babies" is what they used to call a show for the tired businessman--before businessmen started jogging and stopped feeling tired.
On the assumption that said businessman had put in an exhausting day, it was thought that the entertainment pitched his way in the evening had to be fast-paced, mildly risque', light in substance, but heavy in female pulchritude. All of the above certainly apply to "Sugar Babies," which began a five-week run in the Kennedy Center Opera House last night. What's more, this touring version of the Broadway hit is as dull as the village idiot.
It purports to be a recreation of the heyday of burlesque, once an honored institution across the land. Present and accounted for are the baggy-pants comics, the fan dancers, the acrobats, the spangled songstresses, the slam-bang blackout sketches and a dozen long-stemmed chorines (as they used to say). The chorus girls go into the mandatory kick line, cavort gaily on swings in what could be a tribute to Watteau, but probably isn't, and snap their garters boldly into the audience.
There is a generous display of cleavage and thigh, but no shedding of clothes. (This is the heyday of burlesque, not its decline.) A flock of doves flutters on stage and perches on a woman singing "I'm in the Mood for Love." And a vendor pushes novelty items in the aisles.
What this version does not have is a pair of stars of the magnitude of Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, who are still going strong in the Broadway edition. While I have no great fondness for Rooney, I could watch Miller tap until the cows come home. And I have to admit, after seeing the Kennedy Center version, that there is something to be said for the way those two performers galvanize "Sugar Babies" in New York.
Here, Miller's song and tap-dance contributions have been more or less split between Mimi Hines (song) and Toni Kaye (dance), but two heads are definitely not better than one, nor are four feet better than two. Hines doesn't belt her songs so much as she slugs them. And Kaye's taps have more to do with "Taps" than the rapid-fire staccato Miller drums out nightly on the floor.
The general clowning falls to Eddie Bracken, the one solid asset of this production. Decidedly more impish than Rooney, he manages to counter some of the vulgarity of the sketches with an air of surprised innocence. His eyes are truly baby blue, his cheeks cherubic, and he looks something like Buster Brown's best friend. Where Rooney scrambles for laughs with a near-anarchic eagerness to please, Bracken treads with a pixie's delicacy.
At the end of Act I, he is called upon to do a drag turn in an evening gown that resembles an exploded paint box and a wig that could be peroxided hay. As an aging countess, he has come to relate a sorry life of degradation and the account is peppered with sexual double entendres. Instead of underlining them with a leer, however, Bracken goes the other way. He is genuinely astonished that his words are backfiring, then politely impatient with an audience that could stoop so low. Finally, drawing himself up in lady-like pique and wagging a bejeweled finger, he lets us know that a deep misunderstanding has occurred.
Some of the other sketches are not redeemed so deftly, however, and an appreciation, if not an appetite, for low humor is required if you are to last out the evening. Kennedy Center producer Ralph Allen collected the sketches and they are, presumably, historically accurate. They are also single-minded in their preoccupation with the male organ and the way it does or doesn't function. A few blue noses may be put out of joint. But a lot of perfectly normal noses may weary from so many variations on such an obvious theme. There's no great laugh in the retort of the worker in a bloomer factory, who, when asked if he has a good job, replies, "I pull down 50 a week." But in the context of "Sugar Babies," it registers as a noble bid for variety.
Although the trappings are pretty much those of Broadway, Raoul Pene du Bois' sets and costumes seem just a little tawdry in the Opera House, which is too vast for the kind of conspiratorial high jinks that make for low comedy. Mostly, though, it's the absence of an authentically rakish spirit that accounts for the overall emptiness.
The woman who usually accompanies me to the theater was indisposed for this one, so at the last minute I invited a friend who happens to be a bona-fide businessman. He was feeling chipper at the start of the show. By the end, he said he was tired.
SUGAR BABIES. Conceived by Ralph Allen and Harry Rigby. Music and lyrics by Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields, Al Dubin, Arthur Malvin, Jay Livingston, Ray Evans. Directed and choreographed by Ernest Flatt; sets, Raoul Pene du Bois; lighting, Gilbert V. Hemsley Jr. With Eddie Bracken, Mimi Hines, Toni Kaye, Phil Ford, Jay Stuart, Sam Kressen, Topaz, Michael Rollov. At the Opera House through July 17.