Perhaps the most expensive Miami rest-home clap-along ever produced, Baby It’s You! is this season’s Memphis: Another “fact-based” musical about how tough it was, back in the fifties and sixties, for those hardworking, boundary-breaking white producers who invented pop music (with a little help from some mostly-interchangeable black singers).
Granted, Baby — created and directed by jukeboxer Floyd Mutrux (Million Dollar Quartet) — is based on actual people and features actual music, not loose composites (à la Memphis) and homogenized homages: It’s advertised as the story of the Shirelles — New Jersey teenagers Shirley Reeves, Doris Jackson, Addie "Micki" McPherson, and Beverly Lee — who were briefly the world’s most popular girl group, with amaranthine hits like “Mama Said,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” (Owing to what I suspect are rights issues, you won’t be hearing that last one.) But, in its first and only narrative surprise, Baby isn’t actually about the Shirelles, who function mainly as background singers: This is actually the story of Florence Greenberg (The Drowsy Chaperone’s Beth Leavel), a Passaic housewife turned mini music mogul who discovered the foursome and shepherded them to fame. Along the way, she fights sexism and discrimination, embarks on an extramarital affair with her chief songwriter and business partner Luther Dixon (Allan Louis), and generally walks through all the well-trod beats of a music-biz rise and fall, minus the drugs.
There’s a remarkable story here, but you’d be forgiven for missing it: The writers certainly have. They’re more interested in reminding you when the story’s taking place, with help from LED screens that drip with clip-art nostalgia and scene-setting screen savers. (Remember the drive-in? Doris Day? Sputnik? Hell, why not just buy Billy Joel a beer and have him sing us a string of Wikipedia entries.) This deadly stuff is delivered manfully by the show’s unofficial emcee, D.J. Jocko (Geno Henderson, who also ably embodies and gives voice to Ronald Isley, Gene “the Duke of Earl” Chandler, and other lumpen rock/R&B pioneers, as needed). The Shirelles themselves, outside of their songs, are nearly invisible: Christina Sajous, Crystal Starr Knighton, Erica Ash, and Kyra Da Costa all perform to spec, even if their ages are a bit off. (They also double as other contemporary acts and artists.) Even Leavel’s Greenberg, the show’s ostensible focal point, takes a backseat to the set list. Mutrux (working with his Million Dollar collaborator Colin Escott) is just trying to pack in as many K-tel hits as he can, and the fact that smallish Scepter Records produced and/or distributed an astonishing number of hits in the early sixties (including Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” and Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”) gives him a good head-start. The covers are competent, never brilliant (though Henderson, heating up chestnuts like “Any Day Now,” comes closest to recapturing the seat-wetting excitement of the past); close your eyes, and you can imagine yourself on the dance floor at a rather unimaginative bar mitzvah.
Still, it’s hard to mind the music, considering the alternative: the less of Mutrux and Escott’s book, the better. Flo and Luther’s forbidden love story holds promise, but quickly degenerates into suds and woodenly written recriminations; Flo’s fights with her overbearing and eventually estranged husband Bernie are basically a “who nu?” fusillade of “oy!” “zhlub!” and “meshuggeh”; and Flo’s strained relations with her children (especially her blind son Stanley, played by ensemble member Brandon Uranowitz, who literally lurks in the background and is basically forgotten for entire scenes at a stretch) are of no interest whatsoever. Flo herself is a Strong Sassy Lady so plainly traced from type, you can practically see the outline perforations. Leavel bears up and sings well, but there’s little to rescue here. The real Flo Greenberg was, in her own words, "a white woman who was in a black business and who couldn't carry a tune." Whereas the stage version sings her heart out — only, whoops! There’s nothing in it.
Every night's a baby boomer's delight at the Broadhurst, where the new jukebox musical "Baby It's You!" rolls out one golden oldie after another. And this happy-clappy show has a large inventory to pull from: After all, it's about Florence Greenberg.
Only vinyl geeks know Greenberg -- played by the likable Beth Leavel, from "The Drowsy Chaperone" -- but any American over 50 is familiar with the hits she released on her indie labels from the late '50s to the mid-'60s. "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, "Walk on By" by Dionne Warwick -- those were Greenberg's singles.
But her greatest discovery was the Shirelles, the four teenagers -- high school classmates of her daughter -- she rocketed to girl-group fame.
Written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, the team that brought us the lame rockabilly fest "Million Dollar Quartet," "Baby It's You!" wavers uneasily between Greenberg's life story and the Shirelles' career arc. As such, the show is neither fish nor fowl, but neither is it as foul as its authors' pedigree would suggest.
Opportunistic is a better word: Many of those hits exemplify a kind of pop craftsmanship that peaked in the early '60s, and they still sound fantastic. It's easy to see why you'd want to put them onstage.
They just deserved a better showcase.
Mutrux and Sheldon Epps' in-and-out staging is like a glorified revue, an impression reinforced by the book's bullet-point approach. The biographical elements dig barely deeper than the superfluous historical markers ("As 1960 passes, 'Bonanza' is TV's best").
With more ambition and focus, "Baby It's You!" could have been "Jersey Girls" -- the female answer to the juggernaut musical about the Four Seasons.
Greenberg starts off as a bored Jewish housewife from the Garden State, then becomes a canny music-biz exec and a sexually liberated woman -- the last thanks to her interracial affair with producer Luther Dixon (Allan Louis). But the part is written in the broadest strokes imaginable.
And still that's better than the Shirelles, who have the best songs but no back story. They don't even get their biggest hit, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," because the show couldn't get the rights.
There are bright spots. Lizz Wolf sends out a parade of sterling costumes. And it's fun to hear the hardworking Leavel Broadway-ize songs like "Mama Said" and "Don't Make Me Over." The power-piped Christina Sajous also stands out as the Shirelles' Shirley Owens. That this show would have great old songs was a given; that it delivers a great new performer is an unexpected gift.
Mama said there’ll be shows like this. But she didn’t tell me there would be quite so many, or that any one of them could be this dismal.
If you recognize the lyrical allusion in that first sentence, you may have guessed that my subject today is “Baby It’s You!” the new Broadway musical about the pioneering girl group the Shirelles, which opened Wednesday night at the Broadhurst Theater.
If you do not recognize the allusion, you may now be wondering if the world was crying out for a Broadway musical about the pioneering girl group the Shirelles. The answer is probably not, but Broadway has increasingly become a booming marketplace for boomer nostalgia, a national resource that could solve our energy problems in a trice if it could somehow be converted into kilowatts.
“Baby It’s You!,” which at least offers a distaff twist on the recent songbook musicals stuffed with 1960s chart toppers, also earns a smidgen of respect — is there anything smaller than a smidgen, by the way? — through the blatant acknowledgment of its status as just another item in a popular product line. As the show begins, a giant image of a jukebox is flashed upon the curtain, in case anyone has wandered in expecting to see that meaty dramatic opus from London, or just something remotely original.
The shamelessness hardly stops there. “Baby It’s You!” succors and seduces its audience of yesteryear addicts with a determination unbettered by any of its brethren, which include, just among the current Broadway roster, the smash “Jersey Boys,” the Elvis and friends hoedown “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Rain,” the animatronic Beatles show.
Invitations to sing along are flung at the audience regularly, as if they were life preservers. Further inducements to wallow in visions of happy yesterdays are provided by the slide shows of drive-ins and diners and other cultural markers of the period, accompanied by the silky narration of Geno Henderson, playing a sort of cosmic D.J. who registers the passing years with material cut and pasted from Wikipedia: “In the movies Elizabeth Taylor wins the Oscar for ‘Butterfield 8,’ and ‘The Apartment’ is best picture. In comedy we’ve got the button-down mind of Bob Newhart and the sick humor of Lenny Bruce.”
And in addition to the handful of songs by the Shirelles themselves, “Baby It’s You!” stacks up vinyl from a whole host of other artists from the era: “Book of Love” and “Rockin’ Robin,” “Shout” and “Duke of Earl,” “Louie, Louie” and “It’s My Party.” More than any of the jukebox musicals that have come before, “Baby It’s You!,” directed by Floyd Mutrux and Sheldon Epps, resembles one of those PBS pledge-night specials devoted to oldies but goodies.
True, some of the non-Shirelles songs were recorded by other artists on the Scepter records label founded by Florence Greenberg (played by Beth Leavel), whose spunky journey from dissatisfied homemaker in Passaic, N.J., to junior-level rock ’n’ roll magnate provides the narrative focus. Florence, whose Jewishness is efficiently announced in her first line of dialogue (“Oy”), is married to a self-satisfied businessman, Bernie (Barry Pearl), who reacts with paternalistic exasperation when she announces she’s decided to get a job.
After his own “Oy,” he breaks into a mocking chorus: “Yakety-yak don’t talk back.” The integration of song and story in “Baby It’s You!” is often on this semi-facetious but still ludicrous level. In the same scene Florence expresses her dismay by delivering a moody, downbeat rendition of “Mama Said.”
The book, by Mr. Mutrux and Colin Escott, the pair who created the more coherent “Million Dollar Quartet,” offers a superficial and weirdly frenetic version of Florence’s admittedly remarkable story. With little experience and few connections in the business, she founded two record labels, first Tiara and then Scepter. (“What can I tell you?” she quips. “I come up with the names while sitting on the throne.” As Florence and Bernie would say: Oy.)
After discovering them harmonizing at her daughter’s high school in 1958, Greenberg established the Shirelles as a chart-topping crossover pop group, well before Berry Gordy wowed the world with the more sugary sound of the Supremes. She also embarked upon an interracial affair with Luther Dixon (a smooth Allan Louis), who became the house producer and arranger at Scepter.
As this determined proto-feminist heroine, Ms. Leavel, a stalwart Broadway trouper who won a Tony for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” exudes an iron will softened by generous lashings of wry wisecracking. Florence’s mechanically sketched emotional crises involve conflicts between her family obligations, which include a neglected daughter and a blind son, and her drive to succeed in the male-dominated record business.
As if to assert her proud femininity Ms. Leavel’s Florence clackety-clacks around the stage in a sumptuous array of period pumps and for unfathomable reasons goes through more costume changes than Marlene Dietrich probably did in her entire career as a concert performer. The Shirelles themselves — Christina Sajous as the lead singer, Shirley, along with Crystal Starr, Kyra Da Costa and Erica Ash — may actually have more costumes (by Lizz Wolf) than they do lines of dialogue. Eventually I started looking for clues to their evolving fortunes in each new outfit: white go-go boots on one seemed to signify the onset of rebellion.
Ms. Sajous (“American Idiot”) and company do sing wonderfully, although few of the Shirelles hits are presented in full versions. (Don’t expect to hear “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?,” the group’s first No. 1 hit; the show couldn’t obtain the rights to that Carole King-Gerry Goffin composition.) But mostly they bop around acting like blandly innocent Jersey Girls, generic teenagers getting ready for a sock hop, or even Mouseketeers.
It seems a small but cruel twist of fate: Knocked from their perch as the reigning girl group by the supersonic advent of the Supremes, decades later the Shirelles are fated to be backup singers in the story of their own career.