Have you ever heard of Florence Greenberg? The Passaic housewife discovered The Shirelles at her daughter’s house and became a record mogul in New York City in the sixties. Really, Passaic should dedicate a street or something to her. And all New Jerseyans can feel proud. She founded Scepter records, and among the hits she launched were “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Duke of Earl,” “He’s So Fine,” “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Soldier Boy.” Greenberg also had an interracial affair with producer and songwriter Luther Dixon. That’s an inspiring true story.
“Baby It’s You,” which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway last week, tells her story, and while it is underwritten, and the script won’t earn prizes for originality, the fab selection of 60’s music, belted by top-notch performers accompanied by a kickin’ band, is a lot of fun (they’re already planning to release the cast recording this spring). And the period costumes are a treat. There was not one dress onstage I wouldn’t wear (costumes by Lizz Wolf).
It’s a jukebox musical, and while not the best of its kind, it is an entertaining night out with the family. I went with mine—my brother and his wife and their two children, my mother, and my other brother. Here was the breakdown: the kids loved it. I danced during the encore of “Shout” with my tween niece and my teenage nephew wasn’t bored. My mother said “this is my era.” My sister-in-law enjoyed it too. My two brothers — one a Springsteen fanatic, the other a lawyer and regular theatergoer — had reservations. One discovered the next day that the story fudges on a lot of details (I call it dramatic license, he calls it lying). The other just didn’t feel drawn in.
You’ll enjoy it more if you think of it of it less as a musical play than a concert with some dialogue. The audience was on board from the top—singing along with “Book of Love” and cheering when the narrator, radio DJ Jock (charismatic and talented Geno Henderson), announces that the Shirelles “were from Passaic, New Jersey.” The cast plays right to the audience, coming to the edge of the stage, looking at you. There’s no pit. The band is on stage and so much of the set is taken up with them that much of the rest of the scenery is presented with pictures on hanging screens. Sometimes this is effective—the 50s-era Passaic kitchen in particular—but the overall effect was a little skimpy. Maybe the producers spent all the money on the rights to the songs.
At first, the exaggerated qualities of the characters are fun. When Florence’s husband Stanley (Brandon Uranowitz) tells his wife “only a paycheck counts as a job” the audience hissed. Eventually the simplicity grows tiresome (in real life, it was all more complex; Bernie supported his wife at first and gave her money to start her company). The four women playing the Shirelles (Erica Ash, Kyra Da Costa, Crystal Starr Knighton, Christina Sajous) are all wonderful singers, but we don’t learn enough about them to care how they evolve. That would be all right, since it’s really Flo’s story, but the girls take up a lot of stage time.
But in the end, for all its flaws, the show drove everyone to wiki Greenberg and the Shirelles, and that is saying something. Who knew that Burt Bacharach was one of her finds? I didn’t (he wrote the title song). It’s a nice thing to know, and I’m glad to know Flo’s story, too. She was awarded a posthumous Grammy in 2010.
The show was authored by Floyd Mutrux (who also directs) and Colin Escott. This company is dedicated, according to the program, to bringing “a series of innovative stage musicals about the people who made trhe music that changed the culture of our country.” They are workshopping a number of other musicals, including The Alan Freed Show. While I’m not so sure their work is innovative, it’s eminently worthwhile. As Flo herself might say, “You could do worse.”