When it comes to Broadway sometimes I feel like I have heard and seen it all. I can never imagine what stories there still are to be told. I absolutely love when I am surprised and intrigued by a new show especially when it is a true story. These types of plays combine two things I love: true stories and the theater.
Nowadays it is popular for Broadway shows to portray real life musicians especially of the 1950’s and 1960’s (i.e. Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet). The hurdle in this type of show is that it has to attract and impress crowds of all ages; fans of that generation as well as that of current generations who have never heard of these musicians before. Therefore the story has to be dramatic, captivating, with music you want to sing and dance to, and of course that big final happy ending. With the case of real artists we know how it ended: they became so famous someone wrote a play based on their life.
Baby It’s You tells the story of New Jersey homemaker Florence Greenberg and how her journey of self discovery led to a job in the music business and created one of the most successful girl groups of all times: The Shirelles. The Shirelles were originally teenagers in high school (the same one as attended by Mrs. Greenberg’s daughter) who started off singing “I Met Him on a Sunday” in a school talent contest. Later hits included: “Dedicated to The One I Love”, “Solider Boy”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Momma Said”, and of course “Baby It’s You”.
While we learn how these young girls became famous and struggled to stay that way, the story really isn’t about them. It is about Mrs. Greenberg and what she sacrificed to make her dreams come true in a time where woman rarely worked outside the home, let alone owned a record company. The Shirelles music highlights Mrs. Greenberg’s journey brilliantly. But I believe there were too many cooks in the kitchen.
All good shows have one thing in common: an amazingly talented cast. Without that, nothing good can happen. Then once you add in the set, direction, costumes, and most importantly writing, you have a hit. This show was no exception. The cast was excellent, especially the women portraying the Shirelles (Christina Sajous, Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, and Crystal Starr Knighton) and our narrator (Geno Henderson). I am still not really clear on why we needed a narrator, especially one who also slipped in and out of famous African American singers from that time, but we got one. While his character was not needed, his talent sure was. I hope he finds another medium to showcase his craft. It was really remarkable watching him work.
After about fifteen minutes into the Act I, I noticed that I was hearing the same songs over and over again, though not in their entirety. Just when you would get into it, it was cut off and something else was already on its way. I didn’t see the point. It would seem to me, that in order to make the most use of a powerful ballad, that’s a crowd favorite, would be to pick an emotional moment and go for it. And, then move on. That did not happen.
The next problem was that instead of zeroing in on The Shirelles or even Mrs. Greenberg for that matter, the musical seems to be in a hurry to cram as much trivia and personalities from that era in. We have a “Leslie Gore” singing a dramatic, over the top, version of “It’s My Party.” While we are on the topic of over-dramatizing, I have to say that while Beth Leavel who plays Florence Greenberg was very good; her part was way too exaggerated. I don’t know who thought that saying the word Jewish and an occasional “Oy” would be funny. It wasn’t. They went for a cheap laugh when the real plot of the story is what is important.
After all the theatrics occurring on stage, the irony is that the entire crowd needed was the truth. That these five women (including Florence Greenberg) were even able to make it out of their small town and pave the way for the success of many other groups like The Supremes is remarkable. The rest of it was entertaining but fluff. I believe they needed to stay on point and true to the story. There are gaps both in plot and in the time line. Towards the end of the Act II, too many people are being portrayed by the same actors. As someone who had no prior knowledge of these events, I was dizzy trying to follow the storyline and remember all of the questions I had to look up later.
This is how Charles Isherwood of the New York Times, ended his review of this play:
“It seems a small but cruel twist of fate: Knocked from their perch as the reigning girl group by the supersonic advent of the Supremes, decades later the Shirelles are fated to be backup singers in the story of their own career.”
While dear Charles is right, I was okay with the story focusing also on Florence. That’s the amazing part, right? That this woman with no experience knew in her gut what was a hit and had the drive against all odds to achieve her dream.
I am sad that this show is closed today. I think it had great potential but no follow through. There was too much information excitedly thrown out at the audience for nostalgia. But, that wasn’t the point.
Seeing this show was like someone handed you a beautiful holiday present, one you really wanted, but it would have been even better if they had wrapped it neater and put a bow on it.
For further reading:
For the entire New York Times Review
New York Times Obituary of Florence Greenberg
The Past and Present of the Shirelles
Then there is always Wikipedia, read at your own risk: