For those with fond memories of the pop music of the 1960s, “Leader of the Pack,” Off-Broadstreet Theatre’s current offering, is a must. Using the work of Ellie Greenwich, a major figure in that scene, “Leader of the Pack” in part tells some of the story of Greenwich’s life and career, but in the main gives the audience a chance to listen to her music.
Twenty of Greenwich’s songs plus an overture (made up of Greenwich songs) are sung (and danced to) by four women and three men, accompanied by four musicians playing piano, guitar, bass, and percussion. These songs, among them “Be My Baby,” “Do Wah Diddy,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Rock of Rages,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “River Deep, Mountain High,” were clearly familiar to many in the audience. A large group sang along with the overture, and throughout the audience lips could be seen moving all the time and voices heard some of it.
There may be 21 numbers in “Leader of the Pack,” but this is not a long show. The individual songs are short, and the tempos are upbeat, so that the first act lasts only 35 minutes, the second about the same.
This doesn’t usually happen at Off-Broadstreet, but all but one of the singers were making their first appearance on the Off-Broadstreet stage. (The exception, Melissa Rittman, has appeared in five children’s shows at the theater.) Three of the seven cast members are currently students at Westminster Choir College; at least two others are also students (at Marymount and Fordham). Some of the singers are first rate, and although not all are at that level, no one gets in the way of the music, and the ensemble work is terrific. The men in the orchestra are described in a press statement as “a slightly more mature band, men [who] grew up listening to this music on the radio.”
The look of the show, no surprise here, is wonderful. Robert Thick designed the set, which features several large boxes placed midway back. The boxes are moved around to create different spaces and platforms for singing and dancing and even in one number to disgorge cartoon-like cars for the singers to perform in. In addition to the real piano, there’s a fake piano that Greenwich uses, which also doubles as a desk. Thick’s attention to detail can be seen in the tiny bit of sky visible over the back curtains, which the audience probably only notices between numbers, but which provides an attractive multicolored touch.
Greenwich has received many honors over the course of her career, including some 20 BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) awards for her popularity and her contribution to popular music. Eight of her songs have received more than 1 million air plays, she has 25 gold and platinum records, her jingle for Levi’s won her a Clio, and in 1991 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Most of the numbers include a fair amount of dancing, choreographed by Julie Thick. The choreography is imaginative, often athletic, and always entertaining. And as if the cast doesn’t have enough to keep it busy, the show involves numerous costume changes. These changes are often helpful for keeping track of who is who in the current song; at other times they simply enhance the total stage picture. For the men, the changes usually involve only a symbolic switch — a hat or tie — but for the women they involve a switch from, say, a simple outfit to an elaborate taffeta dress. The costumes are designed by Ann Raymond, who has created the costumes for several Off- Broadstreet shows over the last two years.
All of the singers are part of the ensemble, but some have specific roles as well. Wendy Watt, one of the Westminster students, takes the role of Greenwich. Her collaborator as writer and singer and for a time as husband, Jeff Barry, is played by Brett Algaier, another Westminster student. Matt Mancuso is Gus Sharkey, and Melissa Rittman is Darlene Love. These four are all part of the ensemble, as are Maria Aromando, Vincent DiPeri, and Kelli Youngman (who is apparently planning to forsake show business and enter the medical world).
The Thicks refer to “Leader of the Pack” as a “jukebox musical” with “dialogue equivalent to the liner notes of the day.” It seems unlikely that all the local Ellie Greenwich fans came to opening night — in fact, some members of the opening-night audience were overheard making plans about coming again with a particular friend who loved this music — so Off-Broadstreet probably has a big hit on its hands. Many people who grew up with this music will no doubt want to come and relive the songs they sang 40 years ago.
— Barbara Westergaard
Leader of the Pack, through Saturday, August 23, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Musical retrospective features 1960s songs . $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766 or www.off-broadstreet.com.