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Gambit Weekly Broadway Baby?

By Dalt Wonk

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  At the heart of Pretty Baby, a new musical based on Louis Malle's 1978 film, is the haunting story of a young girl coming of age in a New Orleans whorehouse in 1917.

As the play begins, we meet Violet, an adolescent whose mother is a fille de joie in Madame Nell's bordello. This "trick baby," as such children are called in the trade, is treated at times like a mascot, at times like an irksome presence.

Hattie, Violet's mother, gives birth to a second child and, after a nasty run-in with the madame, convinces a lonely "John" to marry her and make her respectable. But afraid of scaring off the man (who thinks he is the father of the new baby), she presents Violet as her younger sister and leaves the girl behind -- with the rather shaky promise of a future reunion.

Before this, however, Ernest Bellocq (a fictional incarnation of the famous Storyville photographer) had begun taking pictures of Hattie and became, let us say, "taken with her." The precise nature of Bellocq's erotic urges is unclear. He is, at all odds, morbidly inhibited.

Madame Nell decides to auction off Violet's virginity, and the impecunious Bellocq outbids a roomful of swells -- not because he desires the child, but because he wants to protect her.

When Violet is beaten for some childish shenanigans, she runs away and seeks shelter with Bellocq. They get married. But Hattie, now a respectable housewife in St. Louis, returns and claims her daughter. Bellocq is left alone again in his peculiar, hermetic existence.

I have dwelt on the story at some length, because I think it is an exceptionally good story. And in the current Pretty Baby production at Le Petit, a large team of talented people has made an impressive effort to bring the story to life as musical theater.

In the key role of Violet, Alissa Dean opts decisively for childhood. This Violet is not a nymphet who has internalized the cynical coquetry that surrounds her. She almost seems to cling to childhood in order to avoid the emotional impasse that womanhood in her situation would imply. To some extent, this take on the role is dictated by the script, in which a longing for the validation of a last name, a "father's" name, is the idée fixe of Violet's emotional life; the reason she abandons Bellocq in the end, returning to her callous mother amid a musical nimbus of redemption.

As Hattie, Rachelle Fleming is very much "in the life" -- desperate and selfish, without being in any way "villainous." And David Engel's Bellocq has so much hidden fire beneath his mousy exterior that he seems at times like a kind of emotional superhero, concealing his "secret identity" with the appearance of a wimp. And, I suppose, in a way, that's what he's meant to be.

Rita Lovett, looking every bit like demi-mondaine royalty in a series of lavish peignoirs and gowns, is convincingly domineering as Madame Nell. Her bevy of whores (Julia Lawshae, Lainie Diamond, Sandra Grace Johnson, Lucy Anna Burnett and Terri Gervais) along with the Professor (L.L. MacDonald) and the cook (Kuumba Williams) create an ambience with the requisite paradoxical feeling of elegance combined with sleaze.

Visually, the show is tasteful and displays a keen attention to detail in the sets and costumes, both of which were designed by director John Pascoe. Hugh McElyea's songs are skillful, inventive, often catchy and sometimes moving. And musical director and pianist Joel Martin leads a spirited six-piece ensemble that fits the original music comfortably into a mosaic of traditional jazz and ragtime.

The playbill trumpets this production as the "world premiere," but it is really more like the "out-of-town" opening of a show with New York aspirations. I think it should be judged more in that spirit, because many of its problems are traditional for a play on its shake-down cruise. Length, to begin with. And, inseparably tied to length, a looseness of dramatic focus. One feels some hard choices must be made about a scene here or a song there that may in themselves have merit but should be cut or trimmed to enhance the overall effect.

There were also moments of what I would call "underlining" -- that is, making a point clear to the audience even at the expense of character. This is a shame, because at its best, Ann Rose's script maintains the challenging moral ambivalence that the story invites.

Pretty Baby is one of the more formidable attempts we have seen locally to enter that most perilous of sweepstakes: Broadway. Here's wishing them luck.

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