Baby It’s You! has so much going for it. The classic pop music sounds of the late fifties and the sixties; a truly gifted and hardworking cast; and the wailing, powerful orchestra up on the stage. But when faced with the competition in the jukebox musical genre, it falls short. When an evening at the theater costs a small fortune, Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, and Memphis have already hit pay dirt and staked their claim.
The major problem is the book. Written by the same team who gave us the aforementioned so much better Million Dollar Quartet, it tries to do both too much and not enough. Thrown into the mix are the story of groundbreaking record producer, Florence Greenberg (Beth Leavel); the rise of the phenomenal girl group, the Shirelles (Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr, and Christina Sajous); racial politics, payola, Jewish guilt, and women’s lib. What’s left out is personal story of the Shirelles. Why not follow the lead of Jersey Boys and actually show us who these impressive young women were?
There’s a lot of confusion, which is largely exacerbated by the actors doubling up to play multiple characters. Most egregious is the staging that has Geno Henderson, a truly exciting performer, playing not only the DJ emcee of the evening, Jocko, but also singers Chuck Jackson, Ronald Isley, and Gene Chandler. It relays the wrong message: they were all interchangeable anyway; and the producers are cheap.
Beth Leavel, a Tony winner for The Drowsy Chaperone, fights an uphill battle as Florence. Leavel comes across here as a composite of Merman, LuPone, Linda Lavin, and Rhoda. Sad to say, but Mrs. Greenberg is just not a very likeable woman. She tells us she cares for her kids and her singers, but we never actually see anything that reads as real affection. Worse yet, there is zero chemistry between Leavel and Allan Louis, who plays her black partner and lover, Luther Dixon. The spark between the two characters should be electric enough to light up Passaic, the suburb from which Florence has fled. Instead, there’s nary a flicker to justify taking on the hardships an interracial couple would have faced.
The beauty of the doo-wop sound was the clean simplicity it proffered. Who cares about the lyrics; did anyone ever know the real words to Louie, Louie? Just get up and dance! For a moment, I had a real fear that the Seniors who made up the bulk of the audience were about to do just that. Instead, they sang along, and responded when asked to participate. So for Pete’s sake, whose idea was it to turn mindless hard rock into torch songs? Awful.
Nothing on the stage could possible match the wrong note of the first act curtain. If Mame is the gold standard by which all musicals should be measured for first act climax excitement, this show delivers a rank zero as incentive for the audience to return after intermission. There’s a reason that theater goers need to smoke after the first act of a musical. Or at least, there should be. Can’t say it too strongly: worst first act curtain in a musical, ever.
On the bright side, we have the performance of the radiant Christina Sajous as lead singer Shirley (hence, the Shirelles). Sajuos has a smile that warms the theater from the footlights to the lobby, and wow, does she know how to work it. Can’t wait to see what she does next. Someone please give this great singer and charismatic actor her own starring role, and soon.
I also really loved the après final bows mini concert that took place on stage. What a riot to see Barry Pearl rock out! He’d been saddled all evening with the role of the obnoxious, stereotypically non-supportive nebbish husband Bernie Greenberg. Watching him dance joyously around the stage, I couldn’t help but reflect. Oh Bernie, if only you’d been able to strut your mojo in that first scene with Flo, what a different show we all might have experienced.
Baby It’s You!
235 West 44th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics. www.michalljeffers.com