The Shirelles are a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame act -- the biggest girl group of the rock era until the Supremes. Besides, you can imagine the pitch for Baby It's You: It's Jersey Boys but with girls! Plus there's a Jewish housewife who launched a record label and steered them to superstardom against all odds. Did we mention she left her husband for an interracial romance? Throw in a bunch of golden oldies along with their hits and you've got yourself a show. Except, unfortunately, you don't.
Problem number one: doing a show about the Shirelles without getting the rights to use "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" (a classic co-written by Carole King and considered one of the greatest songs of all time) is like doing a show about Led Zeppelin and not including "Stairway To Heaven." Sure, they've got a lot of great songs, but you're still gonna wait for that one. The Playbill should include a disclaimer just so older fans can get used to the idea.
Actually, it wouldn't matter if the show were better. After all, this is not really a musical about the Shirelles; it's about Florence Greenberg (Beth Leavel), that housewife who became an unlikely record mogul with Sceptre, the home of the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick and many others. The Shirelles are just a side note in Baby It's You. In fact, we barely get to know all their names. Flo's life certainly has plenty of drama, but almost none of that is captured effectively here.
The dreadful book by Floyd Mutrux & Colin Escott (Mutrux also conceived the show and co-directed with Sheldon Epps) frames the show with a deejay spinning some tunes and setting the scene. So many pop cultural references are tossed in, it felt like one of those late night infomercials to pitch a TimeLife boxed set of CDs ("The Seventies were a crazy time of lava lamps and disco, with Happy Days on the television and.....")
When they began with a reference to Sputnik and one or two other time-setters, I thought nothing of it. But when they did it again and again and again throughout the show (Ben Hur won the Oscar! Bonanza ruled television!) you wondered if they were trying to fill time or worried somehow we'd forget what era the show was set in. It's the late 1950s and early 1960s; we get it. It's so random they even say that the Woodstock generation was born at a farm in upstate New York and then follow it by showing the Shirelles on a bill with Otis Redding, who of course died about two years before Woodstock ever happened.
I've already sketched out Flo's life for you about as fully as the show does. I should mention her blind son, the daughter who feels ignored (this is brought up in one scene to be resolved in the next), and the curmudgeonly husband who ain't so bad but just doesn't understand what's happening to his wife. Act Two is so desperate to fill time or bring in more hits that they send the Shirelles on the road and feature NOT the girls but the other acts they touring with, which means bland renditions of "Shout," "Duke Of Earl," Lesley Gore's "It's My Party," and so on. Other tunes are shoehorned into dramatic moments, like "The Dark End Of The Street" used to illustrate the difficulty of an interracial relationship in those days.
In general, tight little pop tunes like "Rhythm Of The Rain" don't really work as standards. They're pop songs and trying to slow them down or speed them up or pull out a few lines to imply some dramatic heft connected to the story at hand slows the show and saps the pizazz out of these great tunes.
All that said, Leavel does her level best as Flo. The men are sorely lacking in charisma, from her beaux Luther Dixon (Allan Louis) to that jack of all trades deejay and entertainer played by Geno Henderson. I would tend to blame the show more than them. On the other hand, the four Shirelles are all in good voice and show personality in the rare moments they're allowed to shine, especially Christina Sajous as Shirley and Crystal Starr Knighton as Doris.
When Erica Ash is asked to assay Dionne Warwick, sadly it just reminds you how incredibly tricky and difficult those Bacharach/David tunes truly are and how effortlessly easy Warwick made them sound. And when you watch Baby It's You try and do for Flo and the Shirelles what Jersey Boys did for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, you realize how very hard it is to make a show like this look easy.
THE 2010-2011 THEATER SEASON (ratings on a four star system)
Angels in America revival at Signature *** out of ****
Anything Goes ** 1/2
Arcadia with Billy Crudup *** 1/2
Baby It's You * 1/2
Being Harold Pinter ** 1/2
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo **
Between Worlds/Entre Mundos * 1/2
Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse **
Blood From A Stone ** 1/2
Born Yesterday ***
The Broadway Musicals Of 1921 at Town Hall ***
Cactus Flower *
Catch Me If You Can *** 1/2
Devil Boys From Beyond **
The Diary Of A Madman with Geoffrey Rush at BAM ***
The Divine Sister *** 1/2
Double Falsehood **
The Dream Of The Burning Boy ** 1/2
Driving Miss Daisy **
A Free Man Of Color ** 1/2
Ghetto Klown ***
Good People with Frances McDormand **
The Grand Manner **
The Great Game ***
Gruesome Playground Injuries ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing **
The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Rose ***
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ***
The Importance Of Being Earnest ** 1/2
The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church *** 1/2
John Gabriel Borkman * 1/2
La Bete ** 1/2
Les Miserables ***
Macbeth with John Douglas Thompson **
The Merchant Of Venice *** 1/2
Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore *
Mistakes Were Made ** 1/2
The Motherf**ker With The Hat ***
Nixon In China *** 1/2
The New York Idea **
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM ***
Other Desert Cities **
Our Town with Helen Hunt ***
The Pee-wee Herman Show ***
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical * 1/2
The Road To Qatar *
The Scottsboro Boys ****
Sister Act **
Sleep No More *** 1/2
Small Craft Warnings zero stars
Three Sisters (w Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) *** 1/2
Timon Of Athens at Public with Richard Thomas ***
War Horse ***
We're Gonna Die ***
The Whipping Man **
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown **
Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Without You *** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
Note: Michael Giltz was provided with tickets to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.