The following review was initially published on April 28, 2011.
“Baby, It’s You,” a jukebox musical featuring nearly three dozen pre-Motown pop songs and a thoroughly inept script, must have struck its creator (Floyd Mutrux, creator of “Million Dollar Quartet” as another surefire hit: It tells the story of Florence Greenberg, the Jersey housewife who became an independent recording industry mogul by managing a group of girl singers who were classmates of her daughter at Passaic High School, and whom she named the Shirelles, because one of the singers was named Shirley. The Shirelles briefly reigned supreme, before being supplanted by The Supremes.
It features the talented Broadway veteran Beth Leavel (Tony winner for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” etc.) as Florence and a different dress for her in every scene. It includes catchy tunes from half a century ago, from “Yakety Yak” to “Duke of Earl” to “Twist and Shout,” whether or not the Shirelles actually ever sung them. (And leaves out the Shirelle’s first number one hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” )
All this just proves what Florence Greenberg learned the hard way: There is no such thing as a sure-fire hit. But surely there were pitfalls Mutrux and his co-writer Colin Escott (who was also the co-writer on Quartet) could have avoided. Near the end of “Baby, It’s You,” one of the four singers who have been on stage for some two hours remarks about the public: “They don’t see us. They just see ‘Shirelles.’” But the audience at the Broadhurst Theater just sees “Shirelles” too. We never learn anything about any of them, not even their full names. (For the record, the talented performers who play them, Christina Sajous, Crystal Starr, Kyra Da Costa and Erica Ash, have appeared on Broadway in “The Lion King” or “Aida” or “American Idiot” and deserve better treatment.) We also learn little about Florence Greenberg, professionally or personally. (She had her own record label, but we don’t hear of any other singers she recorded.)
What little we are presented with, we could do without: She is a Jewish housewife from New Jersey, so what is the first thing we hear her say? “Oy” The show depicts her husband as a sexist, unsupportive schlemiel who doesn’t want her to take a job, and accuses her of neglecting their (grown) children. (“You’ve been more a mother to these girls than you’ve ever been to our own daughter.”)
This must have been added to provide some dramatic tension. But it is a measure of just how confused and amateurish this show that 1. The husband’s whining, repetitive and irritating, goes nowhere. 2. Her daughter also accuses her mother of abandoning her AND 3. Florence Greenberg herself feels she abandoned her children. (So much for the feminist angle.) Mrs. Greenberg also has an affair with the African-American songwriter who becomes her business partner, although this too is vague and undeveloped.
So, what DO we learn about? A character named Jocko, apparently a disc jockey, fills us in periodically on what was happening each year as the play “progresses”, accompanied by clip art and postcard photos on four floating screens: “1958, baby. That year the Russians sent Sputniks on the road looking for space; while over here Jack Kerouac’s got beatniks on the road looking for America; last I heard, ain’t nobody found nuthin’ yet.” The producers of “Baby, It’s You” don’t pretend it is anything but a jukebox musical (before the curtain even opens, there is a little movie of a jukebox flipping over and then playing a 45 rpm record.) So how is the singing? It’s fine. How is the dancing? Choreographed by Birgitte Mutrux, Floyd’s wife, not so fine. But neither the singing nor the dancing really get rousing until the curtain call.
Right before “Baby, It’s You” opened, a lawsuit was filed in New York State Supreme Court on behalf of Beverly Lee of the Shirelles, and the estate of two Shirelles who are no longer alive, Doris Coley Jackson and Addie Harris Jackson, as well as Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson, alleging that the show uses their names and likenesses without permission. If only they could somehow add the lawsuit to the musical, there might finally be some dramatic tension they can put in place of the joke about Sputnik.