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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Baby It's You!
If someone told you that the woman who discovered the 1960s African American girl group The Shirelles was a white New Jersey housewife; that this same lady took on the male establishment by starting an independent record label; and that her partner and lover was an equally ambitious black songwriter, you might consider this a tale worth spinning, right? Well, the creators of the new jukebox musical Baby It's You! thought so too although their product shows otherwise.
Writers Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux have placed a bunch of "characters" on the stage at the Pasadena Playhouse, given them names of real life people and directed them to sing a bunch of songs, several of them quite well known. But this half baked attempt at surrounding the tunes with a narrative framework should serve as a screaming warning to anyone seeking to raid a musical catalog and call it anything other than a revue. Escott and Mutrux &mdash whose Million Dollar Quartet is Broadway bound &mdash have made Mamma Mia look like Citizen Kane!
Realizing, of course, that this tale is supposed to showcase the lesser known Greenberg, do the writers not nonetheless realize that the four actresses playing the Shirelles are entirely indistinguishable from one another? A Shirelles musical without the Shirelles. . .go figure.
For that matter, the only way in which the characters of Florence Greenberg (played by Meeghan Holaway) and her partner Luther Dixon (Alan Louis) could be any more predictable and superficial would be if Escott and Mutrux had stuck cardboard cutouts on the stage. Greenberg to Dixon in the midst of a sultry dance at a Harlem nightclub: "What do you want, Luther?" Dixon to Greenberg: CurtainUpI want it all. As Barry Pearl, playing Florence's cuckolded (and no less superficial) husband Bernie Greenberg might say, "Oy!"
The songs are fine: tuneful, familiar, occasionally nostalgia-inducing and Playhouse patrons of a certain age may well take to them like pigs to slop. "Mama Said," "Tonight's the Night," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "Sixteen Candles" . . .the list goes on. There are nearly 40 songs — complete and snippet-ed &mdash ; stuffed into two hours of theater time. You do the math and decide whether Florence, Luther, the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson et al could possibly have any flesh and blood to their characters. God knows the actors are trying.
The quartet of Paulette Ivory, Crystal Starr Knighton, Erica Ash and Berlando Drake (who, I think, is supposed to be the group's front person) go through more costumes (designed by Lizz Wolf) and wigs (Carol Doran) than one would have thought possible. Voices are strong, and harmonies are graceful. Director Mutrux is trying to give some of the numbers a historical and dramatic context. Which explains why Holaway's Florence ends up joining in on "Solider Boy" (A song Greenberg co-wrote) and the Burt Bacharach hit "Don't Make me Over." Jersey Boys gets away with this "music as biographical benchmark" technique, and just barely, because the story is not short shrifted, because the music rocks and because Des McAnuff doesn't direct fluff. No such luck here. Also pushing the plot along is Florence's Marvin Schlachter (Matt McKenzie) who periodically turns up to say, "Florence, I've go bad news." A fleet footed, Little Richard-esque Geno Henderson plays a DJ named Jocko and a bunch of different singers. If they ever do the Prince story (Baby It's Purple?), Henderson might be their man.
The real misfortune of this engagement isn't so much that the Playhouse misfired, but what a Baby It's You! could portend. Every third page of the Baby program contains an article or a theater administrator's message drilling home the fact that the Pasadena Playhouse is in dire financial straits; that a production like this is only possible due to creative partnerships with entities such as Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and Universal Music Group. "American Pop Anthology staged a workshop production of Baby It's You! at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood earlier this year, and was looking for a home to do a fully staged version," writes Phil Gallo. "It attracted Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures as an investor and Universal Music Group as a producer; the Pasadena Playhouse had an open slot when the planned production for November and December fell out due to insufficient outside investors." Can't believe I'm writing this — but it might genuinely have been an artistically braver decision for the Playhouse to leave the slot dark.