Saturday, August 27, 2011

Baby, It's Who?

Beth Leavel (center) and, from left, Crystal Starr, Christina Sajous, Erica Ash and Kyra Da Costa. 

A friend had a spare ticket to Baby It's You at the Broadhurst Theatre and invited me along. Heck, a Broadway show for free, and the music of the Shirelles, the girl-group hit machine of the late 1950s and early 1960s - how could I lose, I thought. The evening wasn't a total loss, by any means, despite the somewhat savage reviews the show earned when it opened in April (it closes Sept. 4).

Since I was a little kid when the events in the show took place, some of this was new to me, nevertheless the bare elements of the story (which is where one should always start) were pretty close to jaw-dropping. New Jersey housewife Florence Greenberg (white and Jewish) discovers four young black female singers. She thinks they're terrific and manages to muscle into the male-dominated Manhattan music business. She starts a record label, Scepter Records (in the end, she will found three), and propels the girls, now called The Shirelles, to enormous success. Back in the suburbs, her relationship with her husband, daughter and son (who is blind) grows shaky. In the city, she has a deeply-felt affair with the black songwriter and producer Luther Dixon. Wow!

With such great material, it's a shame the creators -- Floyd Mutrux, Colin Escott and Sheldon Epps, sharing various author and directing roles -- didn't trust the story but opted for a commercial decision to wedge it between the hit songs.

With 31 numbers (not including reprises), the show has more of a revue feel, and the jukebox nature of the proceedings are underlined with a projection of -- a jukebox on a scrim at the beginning. After the third song, I wrote in my notes, "When story start?"

The most enjoyable aspect of Baby It's You, for me, was the top-notch talent of the performers - Beth Leavel as Florence, four wonderful young women (see caption above) as The Shirelles, the smooth and elegant Allan Louis as Luther and a candidate for the hardest-working man in show business, Geno Henderson, who plays narrator Jocko and channels Ron Isley and Gene Chandler.

The songs - "Mama Said," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Tonight's the Night," "He's So Fine," "Soldier Boy," "Baby It's You" (with the electrifying cry "don't want nobody, nobody") - can't help but bring a smile and for the target market crowd, memories of younger days. I'm not quite the target market. For me, the Beatles and all the 1960s music that followed blew away everything from Elvis to The Shirelles. How ironic, when one realized that the Beatles covered them. It was only later that I discovered all that wonderful 1950s and early 60s pop and rock 'n' roll. 

But as the show continued, it began to seem like an assembly line, with sets slid on and off, characters walking on, saying a few lines, doing a number, then leaving. The costumes were terrific, but the budget must have been awesome, there were so many - and eventually, one started to think, "another outfit, why?"

The performers were winning me over until a concert scene reeled off "Shout," "Mama Said," "Duke of Earl" and "Foolish Little Girl." Next, actress Kelli Barrett (another fine actress and singer) strolled out as Lesley Gore to sing "It's My Party" and I thought, "OK, enough. Is this about the Shirelles or just an excuse to trot out lots of hits for the 55+ demographic?"

The real loss in Baby It's You is the lack of story involving the women who were the four Shirelles. There are only a couple of brief scenes where we see real people behind the smiling, perfectly dressed and coiffed girl group, but otherwise they're little more than puppets. How did Shirley, Doris, Micki and Beverly really feel about Florence Greenberg and her "discovery" and management of their career? Did any of them object, rebel, want to do something different, have artistic disagreements? The story of The Shirelles isn't only their hits. Maybe the real story is yet to be written.   



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