17 August 2014
The social politics of baby rearing in New York City is enough to make any New Yorker parent shudder with weary consternation and any New York outsider to snicker at the absurdity of it all. New York is a bonafide baby battleground. You see, somewhere between working long hours at stressful jobs and burning the candle at both ends in a stressful city, upper middle class and wealthy New Yorkers have decided to make life more complicated by turning child raising into a blood sport. While junior is still in utero, “good” parents are expected to apply for the best nursery schools and/or find the perfect nanny. After baby is born, parents must make sure that baby is exposed to the right programs and activities to ensure that his or her genius is developed at an early age. After all, the little Einstein must get accepted into the best (and notoriously competitive) pre-school, which will feed into the right elementary school and, then, a well-respected high school – before you know it, junior is receiving his or her summa cum laude diploma from Harvard with presidential aspirations while Mom and Dad weep silently in the corner (likely because they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on baby’s elite education).
Writers Pamela Weiler Grayson and Alice Jankell clearly know the game all too well, and have embraced the hilarity of these practices in the new musical Urban Momfare. Urban Momfare is the story of one young mother who moves with her husband to the Upper East Side and slowly learns to navigate the world of motherhood. She is the target of ridicule and judgment from fellow-moms at baby music class because she has not trained her infant to scat or enjoy a good Bach concerto. She laments the loss of her identity upon the birth of her first child. She finds fellow moms to commiserate with (and who can teach her how to get her daughter on the road to world domination). She struggles to keep a nanny who is in hot demand, and she attempts to expand her non-profit while living a life devoted to the raising of her children. Grayson and Jankell struck gold with their topic. The musical exaggerates the appalling (and ultimately unnecessary) heights that parents will go to in order to ensure that their children end up in the right social circles and simultaneously explores the loneliness, heartache, and frustration that mothers face upon having a child. Urban Momfare is a refreshing balance of humor and heart, anchored just enough in reality to receive nods and laughs of appreciation from the audience.
Grayson’s music and lyrics are similarly well crafted, although imperfect. The least compelling number of the whole show comes at the very beginning. The opening number ultimately fails to do what an opening number should do – set the stage for the rest of the play. Despite the underwhelming start, the remainder of the numbers are smart, lyrical, and catchy. Particularly striking songs include (with the titles that I have bestowed upon them) “A Child That is Hard to Love,” “Please Don’t Go,” Everybody Asks About the Baby,” and the song that I want to add to my iPod for certain emergency situations – “Nobody Wants to Hear About Your Kids.”
Set design for Fringe Theatre productions is limited (understandably so), yet David Bengali’s projections of family holiday cards was particularly hilarious and oddly appropriate. The obsession with sharing one’s gifted and glorious youngsters with the world has manifested itself in the digital age via Facebook posts and customized greeting cards. Not that I mind. I love seeing my friend’s children because I love my friends. But these choreographed idyllic scenes are hardly representative of real life.
The acting in Urban Momfare is consistently strong, with a few exceptions. Christiana Little does a superb job of embodying a naïve young mother who juggles a career and a family in a treacherous block of the Upper East Side. Tiffan Borelli and Christine Toy Johnson are similarly successful in conveying both the superficial nature of the super-moms that they are supposed to represent (Borelli as the “hot mom” and Johnson as the “PTO parent”), and they transition nicely into their roles as well-rounded women with imperfect lives as the play progresses. While these three women are the core of the show, I would be remiss if I did not make special mention of Cheryl Howard who not only has an enjoyable command of a wide-array of accents, but who also stands out as an incredibly funny member of the cast.
Despite my personal unfamiliarity with the rules of “urban momfare,” this new musical is certain to draw quite a few laughs from any New Yorker and, who knows, new moms may even pick up a tip or two about getting their child into the Ivy League. Now, please excuse me, I may have a child in 3-5 years and need to start working on his or her preschool applications.