Babe, the new play by Jessica Goldberg from the Echo Theater Company, is ostensibly about the music business. And, speaking as a veteran of that industry, I can confirm that it captures much of the worst (and a little of the best) about life at a record company. But Babe’s real purpose is a deep dive into sexism and women’s evolving response to it in the workplace.
Of course, the music industry is an ideal backdrop for this exploration, especially the A&R department, perhaps the most male-dominated.
Pre-show music features all female vocalists, ranging from Janis Joplin to Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt (playing the Greek this weekend!) to Sinead O’Connor. The volume, along with pulsing lights, simulate a club, the traditional location for scouting new talent, the essence of A&R.
In the opening scene, young and eager Kaitlyn (Wylie Anderson) is interviewing with legendary A&R exec Gus (Sal Viscuso). Joining him in the interview is his underling since 1989 Abby (Julie Dretzin). Abby is responsible for bringing Gus one of his most successful acts, Cat Wonder, although any credit she deserves for that and her other successes has always been filtered through her boss’ status.
The job interview beautifully captures “wokeness.” Kaitlyn’s take on diversity, the unhoused and “the healing power of sound” are hilarious, but show her commitment to fairness and dedication to her chosen industry. She gushes about Cat Wonder as “the spokesperson for a new generation of female rage.”
Despite having gone through company-mandated sensitivity training, Gus can’t help asking inappropriate questions and commenting on Kaitlyn’s appearance. Abby acts as a fixer and ultimately encourages the hire. Kaitlyn gets the job.
Thus begins the primary conflict of Babe, the clash between generations of women. Abby defends her behind-the-scenes brains behind many top signings her boss received credit for. She’s happy with her level of success—a single nice apartment where she lives alone vs. her boss’ multiple homes, wives and children. Kaitlyn works to show her why this enabling behavior is no longer tolerated.
The play eviscerates the complicity of previous generations of women, while also illustrating the lack of other options. Back then, you put up with being called “babe,” and with much worse for a shot at an inside role in deciding who makes it big and a shot at position and riches. As Goldberg has said (see our interview with the playwright), “it could just as well be Hollywood or Big Tech.” Of course, Gen Z doesn’t emerge unscathed either. Babe is a nuanced and moving exploration of a complex subject.
Anderson plays a dual role as Cat Wonder and uses a dressing room-type space at stage right to swap out hairstyles, add or remove a leather jacket, and otherwise change identities. The relationship between Abby and Cat Wonder adds even more layers of complexity.
Echo’s founding artistic director Chris Fields directs with a steady hand; there’s not an ounce of fat or a false move. The creative crew has done a stellar job creating seamlessly shifting environments, through clever backdrops, lighting and sound. Kudos to scenic designer Amanda Knehans, lighting designer Hayden Kirschbaum and sound designer Alysha Grace Bermudez. The pitch-perfect quick-change costumes are by Elena Flores.
Babe runs through Oct. 24 at the Echo’s home at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. Showtimes are Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 4:00pm. Tickets are pay-what-you-want on Monday nights, otherwise $34, except for Saturday, Oct. 8, a benefit for Echo, at $75.