Powering Up The Jukebox Again

Last night, we went to see “Baby, It’s You” at the Pasadena Playhouse. This was a week earlier than our normal date, because next week around this time I’ll be on an airplane to Hawaii for ACSAC. Unfortunately, this play didn’t leave me with as warm as a feeling as I’m sure the islands will bring.

Baby, It’s You” is a musical retelling of the story of Florence Greenberg, the Shirelles, and Scepter Records. The story itself is potentially interesting: bored New Jersey housewife discovers a girl singing group, goes into the record business, and founds a (for a time) successful label. The story has its ups and downs, including an interracial romance of a married woman in a time where neither were acceptable. The music of the period is fun and bubbly, and there is plenty of opportunity to mine the current waves of nostalgia for the music of the early sixties. So why did this leave me lukewarm? There were a number of reasons.

First, this came across as a jukebox musical with a story tacked on. As a jukebox musical, it was poor: often songs were just snippets, and came fasts and furious with nary a breath between. But the bigger musical problem was outside the musical’s control: there have been too many of this type of musical of late. The best comparison music-wise is The Marvelous Wonderettes, long playing in North Hollywood and just closed in New York, but other musicals such as Life Could Be A Dream, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and others keep mining the same songs, over and over. As certain songs kept coming up, I kept thinking of the Wonderette’s characterization, and this isn’t a good thing because Wonderette’s was so much better and memorable.

As for the story itself, it was potentially interesting (although again, the stories of the songwriters have been hit-and-miss — witness the problems with Leader of the Pack). However, a read through the real history of Scepter, makes it clear that numerous liberties were taken with the facts of the story. The interesting part of the story (the interracial romance) was played up and then down, and the story couldn’t seem to find the character arc it was supposed to make. Here the music didn’t help: there were points in the story that cried out for musicalization to capture the character’s feelings that dialogue just couldn’t do… but the authors depended on the jukebox songs to do this. They didn’t work. This musical needed to say true to the story, find the character’s arc, and tell that arc with some original songs specific to the story (hell, they probably could have gotten original Scepter writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David to pen it: they are still around, and they’ve written for Broadway before). There were also characters that showed up, disappeared, and the reappeared later with little explanation. In short: the book needed work, and the musicalization of the story needed separation from the jukebox aspect.

The book authors (Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux) attempted to frame the story through the use of the narrator, Jocko, representing one of the original DJs who worked closely with Scepter. This provided the story, but was ultimately distracting as the actor playing the DJ played a large number of other roles, depending solely on costume changes to allow us to see the different characters. This was also true of a number of other characters (except for the two main leads): they kept popping in and out as different characters, and it was difficult to tell them apart, as well as to identify which groups were actually Scepter groups and which were not. It just served to muddle and confuse the story.

Other than the book problems, the presentation was quite enjoyable and the actors were wonderful. All were strong singers and dancers and a joy to watch. Meeghan Holaway, who we’ve seen recently as Marie Antoinette in Meeting of Minds, played Florence Greenberg with strong acting skills and a surprising singing voice. Her Scepter partner, Luther Dixon, was played by Allan Louis: again, a strong singer and actor with a lovely voice. Marvin Schlacter, Scepter’s publicity man, was played by Matt McKenzie: he had fewer singing opportunities, but was a fun actor to watch.

The remaining actors all played multiple roles: Geno Henderson was remarkable as Jocko and almost every male black singer, including Ron Isley, Chuck Jackson, and Gene Chandler. His performance alone made the show worth it. The Shirelles were played by Erica Ash (Micki), Berlando Drake (Shirley), Paulette Ivory (Beverly), and Crystal Starr Knighton (Doris), but these actresses also played other black female singers of the era, notably Ivory as Dionne Warwick. All were strong singers and dancers, but the books really never established them as more than that–we never got to see them as distinct characters, and as such, we only got glimpses of their acting. Barry Pearl, who we saw recently in Guys and Dolls at CMT, played Florence’s long suffering husband Bernie as well as the Decca Record’s executive Milt Gabler. Adam Irizarry played Florence’s son Stanley, as well as other white singers such as Burt Bacharach. Lastly, Suzanne Petrela (who we’ve seen in a number of productions including Mask and Is He Dead) played Florence’s daughter Mary Jane, as well as white female singers such as Lesley Gore. As I’ve said before: all were strong singers and fun to watch, but their acting skills were underused by the poor book.

The set, which was designed by Anna Louizos, depended heavily on LED projection screens to establish locale. There was a fixed DJ booth on one side, a fixed club entrance on the other, and the center was dominated by the screens, the center stage for action, and the onstage band behind a scrim that was also used for projections. The projections (designed by Jason H. Thompson) were effective in establishing locations, but at times were a bit busy and came across as pre-recorded. The lighting design by Howell Binkley depended heavily on moving lights (there were 7 on-stage, 4 in front of the stage, and 2 to the side), scrollers and conventionals–which was reasonable for the notion of concerts, but perhaps inappropriate for the era of the story. The costumes by Lizz Wolf, with wigs and hair by Carol Doran assisted by Byron J. Batista, worked well in capturing the period and style. The sound design by Martin Carrillo was mostly unnoticable (as it should be), although at times the music and narration sounded recorded (a poor thing).

Music supervision and arrangements were by Richard Perry with co-musical direction by Adam Irizarry, who in addition to acting and singing also led the on-stage 10-piece band (which had great sound). Choreography was by Birgitte Mutrix and was typical girl-group movement. The production was directed by Floyd Mutrux, assisted by Bari Newport. The production stage manager was Ronn Goswick, who we remember from his years with Valley Musical Theatre, assisted by Playhouse long-timer Lea Chazin. Although I don’t normally mention producers, it is interesting to note the big names behind this production: Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and Universal Music Group, and American Pop Anthology.

Baby, It’s You has been extended at the Pasadena Playhouse until December 20th. Tickets are available through the Playhouse, and you can often find them on Goldstar.

A side note: Funny who you run into when you go to the theatre. Sitting in the same aisle with us last night were Dan Lauria, Diana Ljungaeus, and Bob Ladendorf — the producers of the Meeting of Minds revival who were there supporting Meeghan Holaway, their Marie Antoinette. We took a minute to thank them for bringing back MofM, as well as discussing some of the upcoming productions of the show. They really want to get MofM into colleges, which would be a great thing.

Upcoming Theatre: We’re coming down to the end of 2009, with just a few productions left. Next week brings us to Van Nuys HS for “The Taming of the Shrew” (12/3, 12/4, and 12/5; we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance). I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5, returning 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). December 20 brings “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson. We’ll be going to the movies on Christmas Day (as well as having Chinese food), and the likely movie is “Nine – The Musical”. As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix. Turning to 2010, January 2010 will bring another episode of Meeting of Minds on 1/17 (currently unticketed), as well as “Lost in Yonkers” at Rep East (starting 1/22, currently unticketed). Another interesting show, although we would have to make a weekend of it, is Duncan Sheik’s “Whisper House at The Old Globe in San Diego, running January 13 through February 21. February 2010 will also bring “The Andrews Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 13. Lastly, sometime in January will be “Camelot” at the Pasadena Playhouse (although they haven’t sent out the dates yet), with Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” in February 2010.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.