The 32 doo-wop songs that weave in and out of the compulsively swinging but incredibly shallow new jukebox musical “Baby, It’s You” reflect the canon of hits that are mainly identified with the Shirelles, the most successful girl group in American pop history. But this simplistically conceived and constructed celebration of the group’s career and songs, as co-written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, makes a point of not focusing on the lives or the back story of the group’s four singers, but rather on the woman who discovered them and engineered their success.
Florence Greenberg (Beth Leavel) of Passaic, New Jersey, was not your typical Jewish mother and housewife in the late 1950s. It wasn’t because she didn’t do all the expected or typical things like keeping the house clean, cooking meals for her husband, Bernie (Barry Pearl), and raising their two children, one of whom is blind. She even says “oy” with conviction under the right circumstances. That life-changing circumstance came on the day she got up the courage to tell Bernie of her decision to get a job in the music business.
We hear this news after an introductory medley/montage of musical numbers (for example, “Mr. Lee,” “Rockin’ Robin” and “Dance With Me”) defining the 1960s as the rockin’ era. The songs are spiritedly introduced and presided over by fast-talking, swiveling and shaking radio DJ named Jocko (Geno Henderson.)
Greenberg was evidently a determined and perceptive woman who was able to spot the talent of four African-American girls at her daughter’s high school: Doris (Crystal Starr Knighton), Beverly (Kyra Da Costa), Shirley (Christina Sajous), and Micki (Erika Ash). We see her quickly assuming the role of independent record label entrepreneur and as promoter for the group that she names the Shirelles.
“Baby, It’s You,” as co-directed by Mutrux and Sheldon Epps, attempts to follow two paths: Florence’s independence from her husband and children during their teen years and the Shirelles’ dependence on her. Although based on the truth, this musical does neither with much conviction. Florence had only two dreams: to become a success in the world of rhythm and blues dominated by men, and to insure that the Shirelles achieved the fame and fortune they deserved.
Renowned for such 1960s hits as “He’s So Fine,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” and “Soldier Boy,” the Shirelles remain, except for a few isolated moments, a beautifully dressed and smartly coiffed musical frame for Florence as she aggressively establishes herself as a titan in the music industry.
This is not to imply that the Shirelles don’t give their all in the delivery of their many songs. Each one is notable for the obligatory moves that defined singing groups at the time, here provided by Birgitte Mutrux’s repetitive choreography. Even if you are not disposed to shout in rapturous approval at the beginning of each song (as many audience members with fond memories do), you may be impressed by the period-perfect haute couture fashion parade of crinolines and taffetas, silks and satins designed by Lizz Wolf. Leavel also wears some dynamite-looking frocks, particularly a stunning black and white art deco creation.
All the action takes place in front of a unique bandstand (designed by Anna Louizos) that is notable for terraced sections with mobility. Howard Binkley lights the setting with his customary brilliance. A collection of vintage photos of the era are projected periodically and add visual texture to Jason H. Thompson’s stage design.
Despite being handicapped by dialogue of unredeemable triteness, Leavel is always amusing to watch as the single-minded housewife from New Jersey who bargains and negotiates with producers and managers — sometimes winning, sometimes losing the battle to keep her hard-earned product selling in its intended market. Along the way, she finds time to have an affair with the African-American songsmith Luther Dixon (Allan Louis), a relationship that you may surmise is not going to end happily.
Leavel, who won the Tony for her performance as the title character in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” tries diligently, and sometimes succeeds against all odds, to instill a reality into her one-dimensional character with lines that are generally more hackneyed than any of the lyrics in the songs (“You gave me feelings I didn’t know I had” and “I’m a woman in a man’s world”).
Louis is fine as Luther, whose compositions helped propel the popularity of The Shirelles. His successful partnership with Greenberg in their joint venture Scepter Records is given a bit of perspective. Despite a kiss or two, their intimate relationship is brushed over lightly. It is, however, always interesting to see how these two excellent actors somehow figure out how to make something real happen within a threadbare book connected by a patchwork of pop songs.
It is surprising how little attention is given to the Shirelles, four women whose individual personalities and private lives are only alluded to. There is no attempt made to make them more than musical window dressing. There are fragments that include bits about Florence’s blind son and composer Stanley (Brandon Uranowitz, who also plays other roles) and her neglected daughter, Mary Jane (Kelli Barrett, who also doubles as Lesley Gore).
Henderson is lively enough as the slightly smarmy DJ who serves to tie the political and social changes of the era into the story. He gets the spotlight with the Shirelles performing audience-pleasers by Chuck Jackson (“Hey, Paula”), Ronald Isley (“Shout”), and Gene Chandler (“Duke of Earl”). Late in the show, Greenberg’s brief association in the early 1960s with Burt Bachrach and Hal David allows Leavel an opportunity to be both musically and dramatically effective singing “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk On By” along with Ash impersonating Dionne Warwick.
“Baby It’s You” is ultimately the kind of musical that will either encourage you to “Twist and Shout” or turn and run. **
“Baby, Its You,” Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street. $48.50 to $128.50. 212-239-6200.