If innuendo were frosting, think of the rollicking “Sugar Babies” as the world’s thickest (and sweetest) piece of cake.
The bawdy allusions in this musical revue, now on stage at Roger Rocka’s through Jan. 16, come as no surprise considering the show’s homage to burlesque/vaudeville traditions. Stephen Sondheim might have phrased it a little more delicately in his lyrics for the show “A Little Night Music,” when one of his characters tartly sings of a lusty weekend in the country “watching little things grow,” but when it comes to punch lines about the excitement of the male of the species, “Sugar Babies” makes no, um, bones about it.
Against such a backdrop of sexual coyness, it’s a pleasure to watch such theater veterans as Richard Ruth and Ann Whitehurst strut their stuff and draw out the laughs. Even though the Sunday night audience I watched the show with was a little smaller and more reserved than the ideal — I kept waiting for some aghast patron to rise and throw holy water on the proceedings — Ruth and Whitehurst mined every possible giggle. Along with Chris Carsten, a GCP newcomer with an extensive theater background, and such stalwarts as actor/choreographer Steve Pepper, the show emerges with a sturdy, nostalgic tone overall rather than a crass “Saturday Night Live” shock-raunch feel.
The show, which hit Broadway in 1979 as a star vehicle for Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, is a mix of dance numbers and vintage comedy routines set at the Gaiety Theater — in homage to old-fashioned burlesque. (No worries, Fresno puritans, there’s no more skin involved than any other Good Company song-and-dance show.) Bopping along from silly sketches to sequined chorus routines, director Fred Bologna gives us a low-key, pleasant mix that is easy on the eyes and ears. Add enough groaner punchlines to trigger a “Laugh In” flashback, and the evening goes down pretty smoothly.
There were a couple of wobbles at the performance I attended. Some of the comedy moments needed to be a little brisker. Ruth was so determined to get a reaction from the mostly quiet audience that he stretched out his otherwise excellent first-act-finale drag routine — what a voice! — a little too long over the dead spots. And his “McHugh Medley” couples routine with Whitehurst could have used stronger direction. (I had a hard time figuring out the comic relationship between the two of them.)
But the highlights were far more prominent. Among them:
- The “Feathered Fantasy” fan-dance salute to Sally Rand, in which the Sugar Babies dancers employ strategically placed feathers. It could have been a silly, too-coy exercise, but Pepper’s choreography is graceful and almost tender. (I wasn’t crazy about Andrea Henrickson’s lighting design for the number — even dimly lighted scenes need a sense of drama.)
- Kelly Brianne Hall’s “Don’t Blame Me” torch song number. Even when her vocals (or the sound design) faltered a little, she sold the routine with fierce determination and sheer sex appeal.
- Kristin Henson’s comic timing, especially in a hilarious “Monkey Business” routine in which she expertly calibrates each and every word to maximum comic effect.
- Carsten’s amusing turn as a randy judge interrogating an audacious widow (Whitehurst, who is great at playing deadpan).
- Ensemble member Julian Perez’s graceful dancing.
- The recorded musical accompaniment, credited to conductor Roy Carlson, which sounded fuller and more like a Broadway orchestra than most GCP productions.
- Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s sparkly costumes, including a glittery silver-gown get-up for Whitehurst that rivals her “Chrysler Building” dress from “The Producers.”
Overall, it’s a silly, light-hearted show that hearkens back to an earlier time. It’s perhaps not the perfect fit for the most prudish among us — for that I’m thinking “A Good Company Christmas” across the street at the 2nd Space might be a better option — but the nostalgic “Sugar Babies” is a good reminder that both nice AND naughty have been around a lot longer than we might think.