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NEW YORK — The absence of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” from Baby It’s You is conspicuous. Whether it was rights refusal or a cost issue, it’s odd that a musical built around the Shirelles would make no mention of one of the early-‘60s girl group’s two No. 1 hits. But that omission is symptomatic of a show that has a void where its narrative backbone and heart should be.
This depressingly artless construct tries to follow in the footsteps of Tony-winning commercial phenomenon Jersey Boys, which legitimized the jukebox musical and tapped into the nostalgic baby-boomer market with its Frankie Valli hit list.
The rudimentary book for the Shirelles show was co-written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, the team behind last season’s still-running Million Dollar Quartet. Assembled around a legendary jam session uniting Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, that show is basically a concert masquerading as a dramatic musical. But it’s almost Chekhovian compared to Baby’s It’s You.
Beyond the fact that one of them is named Shirley (Christina Sajous), we learn very little about the four individual members of the Shirelles. That’s because the show is actually about Florence Greenberg (Beth Leavel). A New Jersey Jewish housewife chafing against her kitchen confinement, Flo broke into the music industry with a teenage African-American vocal quartet discovered by her daughter, Mary Jane (Kelli Barrett), in a Passaic schoolyard.
Mutrux and Escott take a ham-fisted stab at fashioning Greenberg into a pre-feminist pioneer in an industry controlled by men. She also defies convention by leaving her male-chauvinist husband (Barry Pearl) for black songwriter and record producer Luther Dixon (Allan Louis) at a time when mixed-race relationships were not widely accepted. But the trajectory of neither the Shirelles’ brief blaze of glory nor of Flo and Luther’s semi-clandestine romance is rendered compelling here.
Playing a DJ named Jocko as well as impersonating various singing stars, Geno Henderson comes on at intervals to establish a timeline by reciting a few Wikipedia bullet points about the year in question. But social context is as sketchy as character development.
A Tony winner for The Drowsy Chaperone, Leavel is a fine singer and gifted musical-comedy performer who deserves better than this stereotypical cutout. When her husband shoots down her dreams to remind her that her place is at home, Florence sighs, “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Cue song.
No attempt is made to establish a personal bond with the Shirelles, so when the group stops charting and Flo moves on, the sense of a relationship coming to an end is missing. Nor does the family conflict resonate; Mary Jane’s estrangement from Flo and their reunion are covered in a single number.
Leavel is done no favors in the looks department either. In her lacquered wigs and costumer Lizz Wolf’s fussy outfits, Flo looks like a runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Anna Louizos has built a deluxe multi-tiered bandstand with moving platforms for the musicians, but mostly the set serves to frame the exceedingly literal projections.
Biggest disappointment is the music. Songs are dropped in with the randomness of a late-‘50s/early-‘60s playlist set to shuffle mode. The show takes some of the great American pop tunes of the 20th century and homogenizes their transcendent joys and heartaches into bland karaoke. Numbers almost invariably are chopped into fragmented presentations, interrupted by dialogue or repurposed as Broadway-ized musical soliloquies.
For a show about a woman who carved her career on having a great ear for a crisp, catchy hit, it grates that the songs are so carelessly handled, with period vocal authenticity often compromised by American Idol-era melisma flourishes. Don Sebesky’s orchestrations also stray from the distinctive sound of the day.
Mutrux shares directing duties with Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, where the show had a 2009 run. But the integration of book scenes and musical numbers is clunky in the extreme. And the choreography of the co-creator’s wife, Birgitte Mutrux, calls to mind cruise-ship entertainment.
Through his American Pop Anthology production banner, Mutrux is developing other jukebox shows. But on the basis of Baby It’s You, artists who care about the way their back-catalogs are represented might want to run and hide.
Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Beth Leavel, Allan Louis, Geno Henderson, Erica Ash, Kelli Barrett, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr Knighton, Barry Pearl, Christina Sanjous, Brandon Uranowitz
Book: Floyd Mutrux, Colin Escott, conceived by Mutrux
Directors: Floyd Mutrux, Sheldon Epps
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Lizz Wolf
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Carl Casella
Projection designer: Jason H. Thompson
Choreographer: Birgitte Mutrux
Music supervisor/arrangements: Rahn Coleman
Orchestrations: Don Sebesky
Presented by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, American Pop Anthology, in association with Universal Music Group, Pasadena Playhouse
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