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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Leader of the Pack Cut Back to the Right Size

Also see Bob's review of The Kreutzer Sonata

Leader of the Pack
Richard Rella Jr. Grayce Coviello and Vincent D. DiGeronimo
When the initial presentation of Leader of the Pack: The Songs of Ellie Greenwich with a cast of six had a brief run at New York's Bottom Line in the winter of 1984, Stephen Holden noted in the New York Times that "Leader of the Pack is more a rock concert than the full scale musical it wants to be ... But in its performances and in songs that capture the essence of teen-age joy and longing, it's a powerhouse."

When the revue came to Broadway a little more than a year later with a cast of nineteen, the Times' Frank Rich dismissed it as follows, " ... the race for most calamitous musical has gained a strong new contender with Leader of the Pack, ... this show does lead the pack in such key areas as incoherence (total), vulgarity (boundless) and decibel level (stratospheric, with piercing electronic feedback)."

Both wisely and of necessity, Women's Theater Company's current production in its small and comfortable space in Lake Hiawatha is presenting Leader of the Pack with a cast of six, backed by two keyboards. It is an uneven production which cries out for a stronger cast. However, the bottom line is that hearing the 24 oldies which comprise the heart of this musical sung without amplification makes for a pleasant 90-minute entertainment.

There is a suggestion of a book by Anne Beatts which offers a short, truncated biography of Ellie Greenwich whose songs are the entire basis for this project. A majority of the songs here were popular between 1962 and 1966 and were written by Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector. However, songs written with four other collaborators are included. The linking "book" quickly fills us in on Greenwich's typical middle class upbringing in Brooklyn, and then Levittown, Long Island. For the most part, it centers on Greenwich's most fertile creative period, from when she was twenty-one in 1962 until 1966. It was during this period that she met, married and collaborated on songs with Jeff Barry. Their marriage ended in 1965 (the only explanation offered is that when Greenwich resisted Barry's suggestion that she stay home and have children, Barry walked), and, although they continued to write together for another year, the dissolution of their professional partnership ended when he remarried, and Greenwich had an emotional breakdown. Here the story comes to an abrupt halt, and, led by Ellie, the troupe sings five more Greenwich songs. The final song, original to the revue, is the routine, musically and lyrically uninteresting affirmation, "We're Gonna Make It After All."

In the Broadway production of Leader of the Pack (repeating her stint at the Bottom Line), the Ellie Greenwich of 1985 appeared for the extended musical finale playing her then contemporary self. Given that so far as I can ascertain Greenwich never remarried nor (to her expressed regret) had children, and that the story halts with her breakdown, it appears that she has remained in thrall to Barry. As to whether there is any basis in life to this, I have no idea. However, I do know that the abrupt curtailment of the book here is unsatisfying.

Grayce Coviello plays Ellie Greenwich. She is dreadfully miscast. I'll not be so ungracious as to estimate her age, but she is far too mature to represent the 1960s Greenwich. However, and there is an however, Coviello is perky and adorable both in her singing and performance. Her voice is always pleasant on the ears. Her finest moment coincides with that of the entire evening, when she gets to sing the only theatrical song in the entire production, one apparently written for this revue. Sung when Greenwich has an emotional breakdown after losing Barry, Coviello's interpretation of "Rock of Rages" is deeply moving. There is nothing in any of the other songs that suggests that Greenwich would be capable of such a serious, heartbreaking lyric. Covillo's "Do Wah Diddy," "And Then He Kissed" and "Da Doo Run Run" make for very pleasant listening.

Rock gospel singer Darlene Love, for whom Greenwich wrote in the '60s, played herself in the 1984 and 1985 productions. Here Love is portrayed by the most talented Lisa Strum. Strum is easily the best singer on hand, and she performs with a professionalism not otherwise in much supply here. When early on, Strum brings all these virtues to her smooth and stirring rendition of "Wait 'Til Bobby Gets Home," the pleasure of the audience is palpable. Best of all, her "Christmas-Baby Please Come Home" number is terrifically sung. I wish director Margaret Leone had gone to Strum more.

Director Leone does rely quite heavily on (the also too mature for her role) Leasen Beth Almquist. Almquist plays Ellie's close friend and early girl group partner identified here as Annie. In the original productions, the role was identified as that of and played by Annie Golden. Almquist displays a winning enthusiasm, but she is required to execute choreographed movement and comic shtick which appear to be beyond her abilities. Vocal strain was evident when she sang her solos, particularly the song which provides the show's title. Sarah Levine rounds out the distaff contingent, mostly singing backup vocals. Levine has two solos. She does very well by "Look of Love," but is strained and out of tune on "Keep It Confidential."

Ellie Greenwich's specialty was writing for girl groups, so it is not surprising when each of the ladies is employed practically non-stop as backup singer when not soloing. Together, they deliver a fine "Chapel of Love." On the other hand, the male contingent, Vincent D. DiGeronimo playing Jeff Barry and Richard Rella, Jr. who plays a role modeled after Phil Spector (but is only identified as Gus) have limited opportunities. Their duet "Hanky Panky" is smooth, but underpowered.

The simple, pleasing set by Robert Lavagno features a cutout of a jukebox with music notes streaming out of each side, three circular platformed record discs, and an onstage piano. The smooth and enjoyable keyboard arrangements played by Musical Directors Pam Kane and Rick Edinger keep things lively and allow the singers to be heard.

The Ellie Greenwich oeuvre has a catchy sound with lyrics (when not deadly repetitive as in "Why Do Lover's Break Each Other's Heart") that have a simple, down to earth appeal. As sung here, they are somewhat bland as compared to the best of doo-wop. Maybe Phil Spector's fabled "Wall of Sound" made a difference. Still, they are light and pleasant, and the same can be said for this effectively modest Leader of the Pack.

Leader of the Pack: The Songs of Ellie Greenwich continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through October 29 at Women's Theater Company at the Parsippany Arts Center, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, NJ 07034. Box Office: 973-316-3033. Online: www.womenstheatercompany.org.

Leader of the Pack: The Songs of Ellie Greenwich Book by Anne Beatts; directed by Margaret Leone/ Choreography by Lauren Moran Mills

Cast
Annie…………….Leasen Beth Almquist
Ellie………………………..Grayce Coviello
Jeff……………...Vincent D. Digeronimo
Jivette……………………………Sarah Levine
Gus………………………Richard Rella, Jr.
Darlene……………………………..Lisa Strum


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- Bob Rendell



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