Babalu-cy! The Art of Desi Arnaz
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
November 8, 2008
There is something so exciting about a live band, particularly when it's coupled with a talented song-and-dance man. You can tell that performer and creator Greg Purnhagen loves playing Desi Arnaz as he sings, dances, and drums with charm and ease. And while the narrative portions of Babalu-cy! The Art of Desi Arnaz are far less successful and engaging, it is still a rare treat to see 18 Big Band style numbers.
Desi Arnaz was best known for his role as Ricky Ricardo on the hit TV show I Love Lucy. On screen and off, Arnaz was a top-notch band leader. Babalu-cy! is Purnhagen's homage to his childhood role model. Between songs, Purnhagen, as Arnaz, tells us a little about his privileged childhood in Cuba, being forced to flea to Miami in 1933, and the lucky breaks he received early on (including an encounter with Bing Crosby) that led to his band, Broadway, and Hollywood successes. In one particularly fun story, Arnaz had been paired with a last minute band that had no grasp of his Cuban-inspired music. After being fired promptly after his first set, Arnaz raided the kitchen for pots, pans, silverware (and rum, for inspiration) and hastily taught his band a conga rhythm on the culinary apparatus and incidentally started the conga craze in the United States.
The second that Lucy (played by Emily Anne Smith) walks onto the stage, though, the show takes a turn for the worse. Suddenly it is no longer about Desi, no longer the same tribute to him as an individual. Purnhagen and Smith, along with singing a few numbers and exchanging some rather hackneyed dialogue, go so far as to try to re-enact parts of I Love Lucy episodes. This is a very bad idea. If the point of Babalu-cy! is to show us who Desi Arnaz really was, then the decision to dwell on what we already know about him from television was misguided. While his womanizing and drinking are briefly mentioned by Lucy, they are never explained. Desi just repeats that he loved Lucy—an insufficient answer in a play intended to illuminate Arnaz.
As a vehicle for some very engaging musical numbers, simply and professionally choreographed by Gene Castle, Babalu-cy! is well worth it. Classics like "Babalu" and "I Love Lucy" cannot help but bring a smile and fond memories, while songs that were new to me such as "Tico Tico" and "She Could Shake the Maracas" will have your foot tapping. But for a window into the true Desi Arnaz and his art, I was left wanting more.