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Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped: REVIEWS

Musical not a striking piece

Review: The Lindbergh-baby kidnapping gives many angles to pursue in this production. But Kenneth Allan Vega's approach is a little quaint.

By J. Wynn Rousuck
Sun Theater Critic
Originally published February 17, 2001

Just about anything can be the subject of a musical - presidential assassins, Siamese twins, brain tumors. So a musical about the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby isn't as bizarre as it might seem.

Composer/librettist Kenneth Allan Vega's "Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped" (receiving its world premiere at the Theatre Project) has been stylishly and inventively staged by director Scott Susong, whose production incorporates film, puppetry and a trio of koken, the onstage assistants used in Japanese theater.

Yet for a show that contains the 11th-hour lyric, "Let's take a moment to be objective," this musical isn't. Vega casts doubt on the kidnapper's conviction, but the show skews the evidence.

The chamber musical concentrates primarily on the aftermath of the kidnapping. Most specifically, Vega is concerned with the circus atmosphere that arose after the news broke.

There's even a song called "It's a Circus." And though this song is sung in a scene that flashes back to Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic, Vega seems to be suggesting that the real circus began when the kidnapping of the aviator's 20-month-old son became a national cause celebre. Indeed, it can even be seen as a three-ring circus with the press in one ring, the Lindberghs in another and the eventual trial of accused kidnapper Bruno Richard Hauptmann in the third.

The press is clearly Vega's chief interest. The action is set in the offices of a New York newspaper, and the primary characters played by the six cast members are reporters, although they take multiple roles. Some of this multiple casting is used to interesting effect; for example, the same actor (Dennis Scott) plays Lindbergh and Hauptmann.

But considering their prominence, the reporters are given few distinguishing characteristics. That may be Vega's point - that the press is an indistinguishable mob. The chief exception is a female reporter named Laura, a former schoolmate of the baby's mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and the only reporter who seems to have initial qualms about invading the family's privacy. (In another instance of interesting casting, actress Cristen Susong plays both Laura and Anne.)

The first act ends with the discovery of the baby's body. The second act moves rapidly from the apprehension of Hauptmann to his trial. Along the way, director Susong introduces a number of intriguing touches.

Among their many roles, the koken portray the elusive kidnappers, a logical choice since Japanese theater tradition regards these onstage figures as invisible. Creeping along the set and peeking around corners, the koken also lend a spooky aura to the song, "Someone is Watching," which begins as a lullaby sung to the baby by the Lindbergh's Scottish housekeeper and evolves into a nightmare-like number.

Some songs are decidedly peculiar, particularly back-to-back numbers in which the first ransom note and the baby's diet are set to music. Then again, there were no shortage of peculiarities about the case itself, from Al Capone's offer of assistance to the involvement of a New York teacher, whose letter in the Bronx Home News prompted a response from the kidnapper.

Incorporating everything from a tango to an Andrews Sisters-style close-harmony interlude, the musical effectively plays up the case's oddities. But once Hauptmann is arrested, he - and especially his wife, Anna (Lauran Taylor), who sings a duet with Anne Lindbergh - become sympathetic figures.

Although the defense's case at times bordered on the ludicrous, including a slew of dubious witnesses, in Vega's version it's the prosecution whose case seems most far-fetched. Indeed, the musical tips the scales so far in the defendant's favor that, in the show's most implausible moment, at one point the reporters in the newsroom hold up signs reading "innocent."

Then in the end, an array of headlines from subsequent major news events are projected on the set - from Hiroshima to O.J. Simpson - and the press presumably moves on to the next story with equal bloodthirsty zeal.

The news media is a large and easy target, and as the projected headlines suggest, just about any big story could serve as the backdrop for an indictment. Vega is on more challenging ground when he presents the absurdities of this specific case, something his circus motif begins to do, but doesn't sufficiently develop.

"Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped" is the second musical by the New York-based Vega to premiere at the Theatre Project under the auspices of Towson University's graduate theater program. (The first was last year's "Heartfield," about a left-wing German artist in Hitler's Germany.) In this case, director Susong and his talented designers and cast have mounted an impressive debut of a show whose conclusion is questionable, and whose focus is blurred.

Copyright 2001, The Baltimore Sun