Broadway has always had an affinity for rock and roll’s golden era – it is almost like its secret golden goose. The music from that time in America’s history is everlasting, resonating good feelings from those who lived during the 50s and 60s and converting new fans within each generation that followed. In addition, Baby Boomers are mostly the faces that make up the audience, it only is logical to produce musicals that would cater to their ears and wallets. Jukebox musicals like Smokey Joes Café, Million Dollar Quartet and Jersey Boys are all successful testaments to the formula of infusing early rock and roll music with a book from that time period. Jersey Boys has been going strong on Broadway for five years – now it is the ladies turn. Baby It’s You debuted on April 27 at the Broadhurst Theatre adding another chapter to Broadway’s love story, or should I say stories, with rock and roll.
Baby It’s You is a loosely based on the life of Florence Greenberg – a real housewife from New Jersey, and mother of two who stepped out of her kitchen and into the music business. She was a trailblazer and integrator, helping to make the Shirelles the first major female vocal group of rock and roll with the a number one single on the Billboard Hot 100. She also founded Tiara, Scepter, Wand and Citation Records and along with songwriter and producer Luther Dixon, helped to launch the careers of Tammi Terrell, Chuck Jackson, The Isley Brothers, B.J. Thomas, The Kingsmen and Dionne Warwick. In 1976, she retired from the music industry, and sold all of her labels to Springboard International. In 1995, the 82-year-old visionary died of heart failure in Teaneck, New Jersey.
The production strictly follows the paradigm of a jukebox musical. The music and lyrics are all derived from previous released songs. Theses songs are then used to craft the book and facilitate the plot through the play’s myriad musical numbers. Baby It’s You is set between 1958 through 1965 and takes place in Passaic, New Jersey and New York City. Harmonizing the show’s story along with the music and current events of that era is Jocko a spirited narrator/DJ that operates on payola – the system for “breaking records” in those days. When Florence is first introduced to young Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Beverly Lee and Micki Harris by her daughter, they are students at Passaic High School practicing in the schoolyard. She immediately sees potential in them and changes their name from The Poquellos to The Shirelles. She becomes their manager, surrogate mom, producer and biggest fan. Once she teams up with Luther Dixon after forming Scepter Records, the Shirelles really begin to shine and their signature sound is created and duplicated. Along with the triumphs Florence had, Baby It’s You also chronicles her struggles getting started, the disintegration of her marriage as well as the effects her success had on her relationship with her children. The musical also briefly covers the decline of the Shirelles and the departure of Luther Dixon from Scepter Records due to the changing musical climate of the mid and late 60s.
If anyone were to ask me my opinion about Baby It’s You, I would say, “Baby, it’s a hit!” It is a solid gold trip down memory lane in a 1959 fishtail Cadillac with an awesome soundtrack to compliment the journey. By today’s standards, if this musical was an album it would go platinum several times over. Anyone that loves to watch the oldies revues on PBS will be in poodle-skirt heaven watching this show. The weaving of the musical numbers with the story is nearly flawless. Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott should be praised for the baby they conceived and created. Costume Designer Lizz Wolf and Scenic Designer set the mood visually – it is akin to viewing a rolling set of Happy Days or American Graffiti mixed with a little Showtime at the Apollo. Like Rock of Ages the band is on stage instead of the orchestra pit, sliding forward and back during the musical numbers. The choreography, courtesy of Birgitte Mutrux, captured the exuberant dancing of the 60’s along with the graceful and sometimes over-the-top moves performers used on stage. But as much as I enjoyed Baby It’s You, there was one minor disconnect for me. One pitfall a jukebox musical can fall into is the overuse of previously recorded music, which turns the production into an elaborate anthology instead of art. Mutrux and Colin Escott could have used a little restraint when choosing the music and how it correlated to the overall story. It almost appeared as if they wanted or did use every popular song in Scepter’s catalog. Had the music not been so endearing, this could have been a major problem. But trust me when I tell you FAMERS this issue is minute. Their accuracy to pair a song with a situation the cast is confronting is almost 100%. Using “Mama Said” to express Florence’s discontentment with being a housewife or “The Dark End of the Street” to illustrate the illicitness of Florence and Luther’s affair, provides the audience with an aural exclamation point that they could thoroughly enjoy. After all, it is the music that is the star of any jukebox musical, and the cast does a groovy job of making these classics relevant again.
I am such a sucker for Beth Leavel, in my sound book, she can do no wrong. She was the perfect choice to play Florence Greenberg – funny, sensitive and boy can she belt a tune. She brought a star quality to the role and offered a wonderful homage to woman who knew what “girl power” really meant. Allan Louis gave a genuine performance as Luther Dixon. Besides Leavel and Louis, the rest of the cast played multiple roles. Geno Henderson is the MVP of the show playing Jocko, Chuck Jackson, Ronald Isley and Gene Chandler. If this was MSG instead of Broadway I could confidently say that the Knicks would make it to the finals. Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr Knighton and Christina Sajous enrapture the audience as the Shirelles and other singers of that era. Their ability inspires delight and their energy is infectious.
From the first song to the last the audience is sold on Baby It’s You. And I was right there with them singing along in my seat, moving my feet to the beat. In 2006, Jersey Boys took home the Tony for Best Musical. My prediction, there is no dark end of the street in sight for this musical, Baby It’s You will twist and shout its way to the podium to snag some awards in June.