Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Housewife from New Jersey

Leavel and Louis in Baby It's You! (photo by Ari Mintz)
Baby It’s You!
Book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott
Choreographed by Birgitte Mutrux
Directed by Floyd Mutrux and Sheldon Epps
Starring Beth Leavel, Allan Louis, Geno Henderson, Erica Ash, Kelli Barrett, Kyra DaCosta, Erica Dorfler, JahI A. Kearse, Barry Pearl, Christina Sajous, Crystal Starr, Brandon Uranowitz

Performances through September 4, 2011
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street

As jukebox musicals go, Baby It’s You! is closer to Jersey Boys than Momma Mia: maybe not in quality, but in its use of music to tell a true story rather than a fabricated soap opera. The early ‘60s hit-making girl group the Shirelles’ songs form the skeleton of this stage bio of Florence Greenberg, a typical Jewish housewife from Passaic who became the quartet’s manager and steered them to short-lived success.

Greenberg’s story—which touches on always-pertinent topics like music biz racism and sexism, even if they’re simply name-checked without delving too deeply before returning to the hit parade—personalizes Baby It’s You! in a way that jazzes up creator/co-director Floyd Mutrux’s otherwise rote “band history” comedy-drama, whose 2-½ hour running time is dominated but a slog through several years of pop history before the Beatles invaded America and changed everything in 1964.

Florence deals with her increasingly fractious (and melodramatic) home life: nagging husband Bernie believes her music “hobby” is just a phase, their blind son Stanley writes his own minor hit songs, and her daughter Mary Jane—who discovered the Shirelles in high school—is put off by the fact that Florence is more of a mother to those four young women than to her. Then there are the issues she faces on the business side: as the lone female, she learns the hard way that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, while her love affair with Luther Dixon, the black songwriter who becomes her record-label partner, is frowned upon by all parties, personal and professional.

But Baby It’s You doesn’t trust Florence’s story alone to keep interest, so Mutrux and Colin Escott’s choppy book provides a narrator, a DJ named Jocko, who explains things and checks off what was popular on TV and at the movies for certain years (1960 Best Picture Oscar, The Apartment; Best Actress, Liz Taylor). The first act moves quickly as we get caught up in Florence’s liberation and the Shirelles’ rise to fame; the second act, conversely, is padded by so many song interludes (performances by Lesley Gore, Dionne Warwick, Gene Chandler and Kingsman) that the crumbling of Florence’s marriage, her relationship with Luther and the Shirelles’ career all seem like afterthoughts.

But the audience doesn’t care: they came to hear dozens of the hits of yesteryear, and they get them. Shirelles’ hits like “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Soldier Boy” and the Bert Bacharach-Hal David title song preside, but there are also Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk on By,” and others like “Since I Don’t Have You,” “Duke of Earl” and “Louie Louie.” The Shirelles’ biggest hit, the Carole King-penned Number One smash “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” is not in the show, apparently because King may create her own musical someday.

An ace onstage band knocks out these and other tunes, and the performers have a blast belting them: Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr and Christina Sajous are a vocally formidable quartet as the Shirelles, with Ash doing additional good work as Dionne Warwick. Geno Henderson and Allan Louis make memorable music as Jocko and Luther, respectively.

The always-amazing Kelli Barrett, who’s been treated badly by Broadway (she was delightful in the otherwise forgettable Rock of Ages off-Broadway, but was not in it when it transferred), gets only a few song showcases as (mostly) Mary Jane and (once) Lesley Gore, but she stops the show each time. Tony-nominated Beth Leavel grabs the part of Florence by the throat and, with a powerhouse voice and charismatic stage presence, transforms a caricature into an indelible portrait of a Jersey housewife finding herself in the Big Apple.

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