Babes in Arms, Chichester Festival Theatre

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Babes in Arms must be one of the most famous musicals in history, if only for the line “let’s put on a show, right here in the barn”, immortalised by Mickey Rooney in the Hollywood version of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s candy-floss creation.

What Babes in Arms should be remembered for is one of the greatest musical scores, and a light-hearted youthful exuberance that was casually discarded when the Broadway musical went serious a few years later with Oklahoma!, by which time Rodgers had a new partner, Oscar Hammerstein. In Babes in Arms you have the last flourish of the musical as sheer escapist entertainment, making absolutely no demands on the brain but pure joy for ear, eye and heart.

Creating such a mood these days is tricky, but Martin Connor’s production succeeds brilliantly, thanks to a young and attractive cast, some lively choreography by Bill Deamer and imaginative performances of standards from the great American song book. “The Lady is a Tramp”, “My Funny Valentine”, “Where or When” and many more classics are invariably heard as songs on a CD. They work so much better in context, driving the action. It matters little that Val (Mark McGee) and Billie (Donna Steele) have known each other less than five minutes before twinning souls with “Where or When” – the moment crystallises life as we would love it to be.

The neglect of Babes in Arms is probably attributable to its tissue-thin plot – young hoofers at a summer rep conspire against their money-grubbing director (a relaxed Rolf Saxon) to present their kind of all-singing, all-dancing show – but it seems strangely credible when performed by this troupe of energetic young hoofers aiming to impress at the start of their theatrical careers.

Steele is attractively kooky; McGee agile and handsome; and Kay Murphy as the vamp and Sophia Ragavelas as the Shirley Temple “babe” grab their attention-seeking chances. The book can hardly compete with Hart’s sophisticated lyrics but designer Hugh Durrant has supplied a nice wide-open set that shows off the period costumes with great charm. The stomping “Johnny one note” finale is perfect Busby Berkeley pastiche.

In another weird twist, the idea of passing down the show business baton to the next generation also somehow makes sense with a cameo from Lorna Luft, daughter of Judy Garland, Billie in the 1938 movie, now doing her own dynamic diva thing, quite admirably, with the young ones. Tel +44 1243 781312

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