Baby It's You-Theater Review

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What is it about New Jersey that spawns entertaining musicals and memorable pop singers? In "Jersey Boys," it was Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons who inspired the show, and in "Baby It's You," receiving its world premiere in Pasadena, it's those Passaic teen queens from the early 1960s, the Shirelles. Let's not forget a fellow named Sinatra, either.

Maybe it's the proximity to New York that makes all these Jersey kids yearn for fame, fortune and a one-way ticket out of Hoboken or Passaic. But if "Baby" is any indication, the desire to leave New Jersey behind also affects middle-aged Jewish housewives. That would be Florence Greenberg (Meeghan Holaway), the woman who discovered the Shirelles (Paulette Ivory, Berlando Drake, Erica Ash, Crystal Starr Knighton) in her daughter's high school and went on to help them chart a dozen top 40 singles and pioneer the way for other female groups from the Marvelettes and Supremes to Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Colin Escott and director Floyd Mutrux's book divides its time between Greenberg's story and the Shirelles' music, more to the benefit of the latter. There are 39 songs in all, several associated with such other groups and performers as Dionne Warwick, Lesley Gore, the Dukettes ("Duke of Earl"), the Cascades ("Rhythm of the Falling Rain") and the Kingsmen ("Louie, Louie"). This makes for quite a flood of music, nearly all of it well-staged, well-sung and finely costumed by Lizz Wolf in the colorfully quaint look of the day.

It's a good thing the songs keep coming because the show's story lines don't always go down as smoothly as the music. Greenberg's unhappy marriage to Bernie (Barry Pearl), a man who prefers Guy Lombardo and a hot supper to anything with a beat, is presented in cartoonish style. Her later interracial love affair with Luther Dixon (Allan Louis), the songwriter-producer who became her partner at Scepter Records, also tilts toward cliche.

What does work better is the story of Greenberg's struggle to succeed in a man's world and the show's ability -- with excellent slide projections -- to place her struggle within the context of the times. The Shirelles peaked in 1963, at the same time Kennedy and Camelot peaked, and their fall from the charts and hearts of America -- hastened by the arrival of the Beatles -- presages an end to America's age of innocence as well.

Although the cast is outstanding, a special nod to Geno Henderson as Jocko the silver-tongued DJ who narrates parts of the show. Henderson also plays singers Ron Isley, Chuck Jackson and Gene Chandler, giving each a distinctive presence and soulful sound.

There's a terrific band onstage, led by Adam Irizarry, who does some fine vocalizing as Greenberg's son, Stanley. Too bad the band's exciting jamming can't be worked into the show itself instead of being saved for after the curtain.

Venue: Pasadena Playhouse (Through Dec. 13)
Cast: Meeghan Holaway, Allan Louis, Barry Pearl, Geno Henderson, Paulette Ivory, Erica Ash, Berlando Drake, Crystal Starr Knighton, Adam Irizarry, Matt McKenzie, Suzanne Petrela
Book: Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Director: Floyd Mutrux
Choreographer: Birgitte Mutrux
Musical supervisor/arrangements: Richard Perry
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Scenic designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Lizz Wolf
Sound designer: Martin Carrillo
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