Theater review: 'Baby It's You!' at Pasadena Playhouse
If the Shirelles can’t quite do for “Baby It’s You!” what Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons did for “Jersey Boys,” please don’t blame the music. The sound of this path-breaking girl group, which skyrocketed up the charts in the early ’60s with such hits as "Dedicated to the One I Love" and 'Soldier Boy," still has an infectious charm. But these singers deserve a better-written vehicle for the roller coaster of fame than this patchwork musical, which opened Friday at Pasadena Playhouse.
The show’s authors, Floyd Mutrux (who also directed) and Colin Escott, have actually focused the drama on the person who discovered the Shirelles, Florence Greenberg (Meeghan Holaway), a housewife from Passaic, N.J., who went on to build a leading independent record company. She’s a fascinating figure, a Jewish woman who crossed racial and gender lines on her way to establishing a rhythm and blues dynasty, but her trailblazing tale isn’t told with much subtlety or depth, and the group that ignited her success ends up looking like a quartet of well-coiffed ciphers.
Greenberg’s personal and professional struggles seem as if they’re being sign-posted with stick figure drawings (Holaway has a pungent presence, but she can’t breathe life into moribund lines), while the historical themes of the character's journey are bullet-pointed as though for an intermediate-school quiz. We encounter the character early on arguing with her husband, Bernie (Barry Pearl), about wanting to find work in New York. “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and think I coulda done something,” she tells him after singing a few lines from the song that will one day be one of her company's big sellers, “Mama Said.”
Next thing you know, she’s signing artists, negotiating contracts and playing hardball with industry titans. She’s also falling in love with Luther Dixon (Allan Louis), the songwriter whose spate of hits helped put the Shirelles — and Greenberg’s Scepter label — on the map. Interracial romance — never mind interracial adultery — isn’t easy to navigate in this period, and though the musical proceeds sensitively, it never makes the characters real enough for us to truly understand just how daring their relationship must have been.
The problem with the book, ironically enough, is that it has no rhythm. Scenes keep skipping beats as they move along, unable to decide whether to offer a documentary recap of events or a predictable character-centered drama. The creators split the difference, and the result only grows choppier in the second act, when too many story lines (from the civil rights movement to the changes in pop culture ushered in by the Supremes and the Beatles) converge in what starts to resemble a messy theatrical scrapbook.
As the landmarks of Greenberg’s life are duly visited, Erica Ash, Berlando Drake, Paulette Ivory and Crystal Starr Knighton, who winningly portray the Shirelles, coo such catchy numbers as "Baby It's You" and “Tonight’s the Night." In effect, they provide theatrical backup, never becoming individual characters in their own right. This is the story of the woman who manufactured their stardom, but “Baby It's You!” refuses to concede that there may be more to these singers than their brief blaze of headlining success. Greenberg deserves to bask in the spotlight, but surely that doesn’t mean the Shirelles should be deprived of their humanity.
The show incorporates other popular music from the era, setting the Shirelles’ seductive singles into a larger context. Geno Henderson, in addition to playing the occasional narrator and radio personality Jocko, gamely does covers of classics by Ron Isley, Chuck Jackson and Gene Chandler while performing frisky impersonations. But when songs are shoehorned into Greenberg’s behind-the-scenes narrative, the show plunges into an awkward sentimentality. Greenberg may have joined forces with the powerhouse duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, but the musical never earns the poignancy of “Walk On By,” which Ivory performs as Dionne Warwick.
Attractively staged, “Baby It's You!” works best as a nostalgic spectacle for aging boomers. It’s a shame that the dramatic craft is so weak, but the production treats spectators to sleek sets by Anna Louizos, vintage costume confections by Lizz Wolf, and giddy wigs and throwback hair designs by Carol Doran. The choreography by Birgitte Mutrux isn’t particularly memorable, but the groove definitely pulsates, thanks to musical supervisor Richard Perry, who also did the arrangements, and a robust band that occasionally comes into a view.
In the annals of jukebox musicals, this one won’t reach the average mark without a major rewrite and some recasting of the subpar supporting players. But if you have the itch to revisit that melodious way station between the sock hop '50s and the British Invasion — and PBS isn’t broadcasting one of its pledge week concerts — this is the ticket for you. You won’t learn much about the Shirelles, but you’ll get to hear the always-in-season “Dedicated to the One I Love” reprised again and again.
-- Charles McNulty
‘Baby Its You!,’ Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 13. $67-$74. (626) 356-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
Photo: Top: Erica Ash, from left, Paulette Ivory, Berlando Drake and Crystal Starr Knighton. Bottom: Meegan Holaway and Allan Louis. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times