Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2011
Baby It's You! Book by Floyd Mutrux & Colin Escott. Conceived by Floyd Mutrux. Directed by Floyd Mutrux & Sheldon Epps. Choreographed by Birgitte Mutrux. Scenic design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by Lizz Wolf. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Carl Casella. Projection design by Jason H. Thompson. Hair & wig design by David H. Lawrence. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky. Starring Beth Leavel, Allan Louis, Geno Henderson, featuring Erica Ash, Kelli Barrett, Kyra Da Costa, Erica Dorfler, Jahi A. Kearse, Crystal Starr Knighton, Barry Pearl, Christina SaJous, Brandon Uranowitz.
Fatiguing though it may be, this is not necessarily unexpected. The show is the work of Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, who also collaborated on last season's Million Dollar Quartet, still on view at the Nederlander and particularly void of dramatic engagement. And that one combined Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash! How could the Shirelles possibly fare better with the same treatment?
Yes, the Shirelles, the African-American girl group whose biggest hits included “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Mama Said,” and “Soldier Boy.” Those tunes have not exactly withstood the erosive effects of time, and the group today is recalled more faintly than fondly, with their signature numbers even more ephemeral. Shirley Reeves, Doris Jackson, Beverly Lee, and Addie McPherson started the group in high school, and rode high for only a few years, never becoming household names and thus only prone to spark genuine interest in past-pop aficionados.
As if realizing the challenges inherent in their premise, Mutrux and Escott have instead focused their libretto on Florence Greenberg, the New Jersey housewife who discovered and managed The Shirelles for the most important portions of their career. And who, let's face it, is not much better known herself.
The book tells us that Florence (heroically played by Beth Leavel) was something of an empowerment pioneer, taking up a career when few women did, becoming a major-minor recording maven, and even divorcing her husband, Bernie (Barry Pearl), so she could take up with the black producing genius, Luther Dixon (Allan Louis). Unfortunately, history has had so little to say about their work together, that even the few details that creep out about their forbidden relationship — they kissed in a restaurant in the South! She's willing to dump him for a chance to work with Burt Bacharach — are timid even by the standards of the interracial romance at the heart of last year's Tony-winning musical Memphis.
The glaring problem, however, is that no one has come to grips with the fact that The Shirelles were not The Four Seasons, so the similar tactics that drove the musical about them, Jersey Boys, to astounding success do not work here. From the creeping build-up through non-Shirelles songs to the medley-heavy stretches and eventually the emergence of a new and more daring sound that erases memory of the smoother styles of before, all of this was done clearer and classier in the Des McAnuff–directed megahit. Even Anna Louizos's industrial-nightclub set (augmented with LED boards displaying Jason H. Thompson's projections) try to compare, and don't. (Lizz Wolf's bubble-gum costumes and Birgitte Mutrox's sock-hop choreography remain entirely within their own, unremarkable sphere.)
This show would have been better off had someone instead set about emulating Jersey Boys's focus on its characters, and its overall reluctance to force them to sing songs not designed to carry theatrical weight. The song stack resembles an iPod on permanent shuffle: Florence launches into “Mama Said” after an early trying encounter; at one point her husband actually barks “Yakety Yak” at her to get her to do her chores; and when daughter Mary Jane (Kelli Barrett) whines about being the odd girl out (one of the evening's many drive-by plot twists), a single belty sashay through “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is all it takes to get them to unite.
Much else is ignored or downplayed — Florence's blind songwriting son (Brandon Uranowitz) receives short shrift, despite penning an early chart-topper; Barry is an oppressive, old-fashioned villain who adds no flavor to the proceedings; and Gino Henderson, playing a series of black entertainers, has apparently been thrown in as the narrator only because the plot could be extracted no other way. More telling still is that the actresses playing The Shirelles (Erica Ash, Kyra DaCosta, Crystal Starr Knighton, and Christina Sajous) are considered so incidental that three of them prominently double in other roles — after the group has moved to the center of the story, no less! — with Ash even scoring a major solo turn as Dionne Warwick. Clearly, the writers’ interest in the group only extends so far.
Leavel, who won a Tony for her boozily funny spin as the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone, is the most watchable person onstage, though she has little to act as Florence and even less to sing. She parades through a plethora of hackneyed situations, sometimes blaring an encouraging word or turning to the audience with a “see what I have to deal with?” smirk that’s far more ingratiating than any words Florence says, but she can't convince you of the character’s necessity. Everyone else has it much harder: Louis and Henderson try to generate some electricity, but can't, and the other performers are stuck as one-offs, caricatures, or both.
Considering they hardly speak, and thus barely fight, joke, sizzle, or for that matter register as being onstage, establishing emotional connections with each other or with us is by design tougher than repairing a shattered 78. Of course, the real point here is the music, and there's plenty: If you’re dying to hear “Big John,” “He’s So Fine,” “Foolish Little Girl,” and a smattering of others before the "Twist and Shout" encore, then Baby It’s You! is probably for you. But your affinity for these songs is best accompanied into the theater by a quadruple espresso.