Thursday, April 28, 2011

REVIEW: Baby It's You!

Review of the April 20 matinee preview performance. At the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including an intermission. Starring Beth Leavel, Allan Louis, Geno Henderson, Erica Ash, Kelli Barret, Kyra Da Costa, Christina Sajous, Crystal Starr, Barry Pearl and Brandon Uranowitz. Book by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott. Choreography by Birgitte Mutrux . Direction by Floyd Mutrux and Sheldon Epps.

Grade: C-

Where do I start?  How do I even explain what I saw last week at a preview of the new musical Baby It's You!?  Bear with me, please, for this might not come out right.  Every season, there is one show that seems to bear the brunt of ridicule - not the kind where there is a potentially great cast who isn't up to expectations (like Women on the Verge) or because its problems are huge, but still interesting (like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), but rather so shameful it is too easy a target.  Baby It's You! is mostly that last type of "bad" show.  Is it as bad as you've heard in the chat rooms and message boards?  No, but not by much.  Is it the worst musical of the season?  Well, I have yet, as of this writing, to see Wonderland or The People in the Picture, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that at the very least it is one of the worst of the season, by a large margin. (And it isn't as bad as last season's worst, Everyday Rapture.)

That is not to say that there aren't things to applaud about the production; there are a few.  And I'll start with those.  The show curtain, a replica of the fabulous (I really mean it) show logo, is pretty cool, as the logo is on the screen, and roving spotlights shine on it in such a way that the picture looks 3D.  And the pre-show "turn off you electronic devices/unwrap your candy" announcement happens as a film resembling those old drive-in commercials for the snack bar (God, I am dating myself...) which is pretty cool.  The costumes (designed by Lizz Wolf) and the lighting (designed by Howell Binkley) are top-notch, and, along with the pretty nifty projections (designed by Jason H. Thompson) which set the scenes, are evocative of a time gone by while still being 21st century cool.

Florence Greenberg (center) and The Shirelles

A few performances stand out in a good way.  All four of the girls who play the Shirelles are spunky, decent dancers with better voices than their true-life counterparts.  Of the four, Christina Sajous sticks out as the best, as she can SING!  But this could also be because she makes the most of having the best material to work with in the book scenes.  And there is Kelli Barrett, who plays both Lesley Gore (doing a fun "It's My Party") and Greenberg's all but forgotten daughter, Mary Jane.  It is Miss Barrett that ultimately offers the show's single dramatically tense moment - a confrontation between mother and daughter, who finally has the guts to say, "Mom, you treat them more like daughters than you do me."  If that doesn't sound like much, take it for what it is worth that it really is the high point of dramatic tension.

And there is Beth Leavel as Florence Greenberg, the actual subject of the show, despite what the "The Shirelles Musical" moniker might imply.  As you might expect, Ms. Leavel is giving a wonderful performance, emoting her ass off and treating each scene like a command performance of Macbeth before Queen Elizabeth.  She is also in excellent voice, though I can't imagine what singing she actually does is particularly taxing as it is all well within her belty range.  In retrospect, there isn't as much of her singing as I thought there was.  And she works hard to make the unbelievably sophomoric book scenes have a little heft and dramatic tension.  Let's just say she's still in search of her next Drowsy Chaperone that will catapult her into true Broadway divadom.

The rest of my comments are largely uncomplimentary, though I can say, in summary, that the whole cast is very committed to giving a high energy performance.

Now for the hard part: trying to explain what Baby It's You! is as a musical.  I guess I'll go with "hybrid."  It wants desperately to be Jersey Boys, and had the story been told better, it could have been close; old Flo was one feisty gal way ahead of her time.  But doesn't it say something that a late 50's/early 60's love affair between a Jewish business woman (a taboo in and of itself) and a black songwriter/producer comes off like a minor plot point?  The show also resembles one of those Time-Life "Songs of the 60's" Collection info-mercials, complete with cheesy narration like, "It was 1960-whatever and Liz got Oscared, Birdie got Tony-ed and the the kids were dancing to the sounds of blah blah," followed by a longish snippet, but not complete version of a tune by blah blah, reenacted by the narrator/disc jockey character.  Another part of the show owes its existence to one of those "This is Your Life" programs where the subject is "exposed," warts and all, but never really with any depth.  But perhaps worst of all is the dialogue between husband and wife that is so condescending that the audience booed with delight all around me, while I thought, "Who knew Leave It to Beaver was so progressive?"  That the cast gets through any of the book scenes is commendable, but shame on both (yes, it took two people to write this dreck) Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott for thinking that shoving all 4 or 5 different takes on the same subject together would actually work.  And I hope that any significant women in their lives gave them both an earful for even thinking to write a line like, "Most women would be grateful to have a house and a husband to take care of."  Even if this were the 50's/60's that would be unacceptable.  And I won't even discuss the deprecating platitudes hurled about regarding people of color or non-Christian religions. (I give Barry Pearl, the poor shlub who plays Flo's husband and who actually says most of those lines, a lot of credit for getting it out without choking or laughing.)

The Shirelles are finally a hit!

Even more shocking is that it took two people to direct this mess: Floyd Mutrux and Sheldon Epps.  Mr. Mutrux, the same guy who brought us the nearly as bad Million Dollar Quartet, needs to be banned from Broadway for inexcusable mediocrity.  I can describe the blocking in about 3 sentences: 1) Stage left and stage right are "locations" (a kitchen, a recording studio, Florence's office), while center stage is the "performance area." 2) All book scenes will take place on the sides, with literally dozens of entrances and exits completed by the cast who deliver one line and leave, then come back, talk more and then leave.  3)  Occasionally, for the sake of "mixing it up," allow the DJ/narrator or Florence walk all the way across the stage.  I am not exaggerating when I estimate that Ms. Leavel must walk two miles per show, just entering and exiting; should this run for any length of time I bet she will ask her stand-by to do the matinees.

While the singing is uniformly good, because most of the actors play multiple roles (including the gals who play the Shirelles), it is often difficult to recognize who we are seeing.  For example, they announce "Dionne Warwick" as one of the Shirelles (Erica Ash) comes out singing "Walk on By" (I think).  Only after the show, as I thumbed through my Playbill, did I realize she was playing Dionne Warwick, too!  And then it hit me... the Shirelles didn't necessarily have a lot of hits on their own, but also did back up singing and many covers of other people's hits.  Whether or not that is actually the case is not the relevant point here; that would be that the show so muddies the song aspect of the show that unless you really know their career, you don't actually know where the Shirelles stop and the show starts taking license.  I don't know what is worse: that I feel kind of duped or that I don't care enough to look it up on Wikipedia.

Beth Leavel and Allan Louis

We are supposed to, I think, feel the thrill of forbidden love and the pangs of anger when prejudice rears its ugly head concerning the affair between Ms. Greenberg and Luther Dixon.  But there are two huge problems with this.  First and foremost, we are always told ugly things happen - "people are talking Flo," "we should never have come to Atlanta," etc. - but we never experience them.  And second, despite his constant swagger and egotistical talk, Luther (Allan Louis in collaboration with the horrid book and esoteric direction) always gives in too easily to Florence, so that when he finally leaves (inevitably) in a huff and a puff it elicited some giggles!  It was as if the audience was saying, "OK, macho man, now you stand up to the old girl?"  PLEASE.  And when things go sour between Florence and the Shirelles, there is no big crushing argument scene, and in fact there is the most unexciting reunion at the end of the show; it was more like they has spent a weekend apart rather than career changing months and years.  YAWN.

Perhaps most emblematic of the woes of this production, though, is Geno Henderson, who plays Jocko, our DJ/narrator, and no less than three different musical stars.  I'm going to be blunt because there really is no way to sugar coat this: the man is creepy.  Chills-down-your-spine/cringe-and-look-away CREEPY.  He leers at the audience like he is undressing us with his eyes, swivels his hips and every other man part he has that looks like Elvis moves, but is really more like a pimp showing his girls the kind of moves a guy likes for his $20 bucks.  I also had no idea he was playing three different singers in addition to Jocko, either.  If you held a Shirelle to my head and threatened to beat me with her, I wouldn't be able to tell you a single difference between the three characters.  Further, he exemplifies just how hard the show works to get you into it.  He embarrasses us into clapping along, encourages us to sing along from the start (and the audience I was in did just that...during EVERY song, even the ones you clearly are meant to listen to only), and then leaves us hanging, as mid-show the narration stops and we are, without warning, supposed to really pay attention on our own.

Christina Sajous and Geno Henderson

With only about 10 people in the cast, and most of them taking on multiple roles, and a "score" full of hits from yesteryear, Baby It's You! should have an adoring audience for some time, as group sales, bus trips, and seniors emerging from their winter cocoons to venture into the city for 1 show each spring, latch on to this one for all of those wonderful memories.  And watch out Florida, Arizona and budget conscious dinner theatre owners!  You'll want to sign up for the rights to this one early.  Mindless entertainment on the cheap, while still being a crowd-pleaser to the monied senior set, is a hard combination to find.  If your audience is of a certain age, and they haven't already spent their Social Security checks on the Time-Life CD set, Baby It's You! should brighten your box office.  But musical theatre fans will recognize quickly, that, save for Ms. Leavel and some decent singers, Baby It's You! is even less than bad dinner theatre at Broadway prices.

(Photos by Ari Mintz)

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