It’s an oldie, but it’s not a goodie. Baby It’s You!, the latest jukebox musical to appear on Broadway is a formulaic, synthetic and flat-out boring musical and an unfortunate vehicle for the multi-talented Beth Leavel.
The story of Florence Greenberg, a bored housewife in New Jersey who formed the pioneering girl group The Shirellles, Baby It’s You is almost sure to be a commercial hit but is certainly not a critical one. At the performance I attended, audience members were cheering when their favorite songs began playing and even began singing along. The show is riddled with images of drive-ins, teenagers dancing at sock hops and diners and other moments of nostalgia and is packed with vintage songs such as “Book of Love” and “Rockin’ Robin,” “Shout,” “Duke of Earl,” “Louie, Louie” and “It’s My Party.” But while a Top 40 playlist of the days gone by may be enjoyable and is certainly well-sung, the clunky script, ridden with clichés and caricatures, drags the show down beyond repair.
After discovering a quartet of singers at her daughter’s school playground, Greenberg forms the girl group The Shirelles and two different record companies – Tiara and Scepter. (“What can I tell you?” she quips. “I come up with the names while sitting on the throne.”) As her success in the business world progresses, her marriage to Bernie (Barry Pearl, presented as nothing but a patronizing caricature) suffers and her children resent her. While these conflicts could be presented as a compelling story extremely relevant to today’s audience – last I checked, women still struggle to balance career and family – instead, the script seems to be written as a checklist. Present conflict. Illustrate conflict with song. Solve conflict. Celebrate with another song. Introduce next conflict. While Florence’s daughter (played by Kelli Barrett) clearly suffers from her mother’s neglect, this relationship is given only two scenes, one of which seems to imply that years of anger and hurt can be solved by a brief conversation, one hug, and a visit to a recording studio.
There is no shortage of songs in this show – the actresses playing the Shirelles sing (among others) “I Met Him on a Sunday,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Soldier Boy,” and “Dedicated to the One I Love.” The quartet playing The Shirelles feature Christina Sajous as the lead singer, Shirley, along with Crystal Starr, Kyra Da Costa and Erica Ash. They are all undeniably talented singers and dancers, and Sajous especially brims with vibrant beauty and energy, but they are hardly characters in their own show. They seem to function more as props that illustrate each scene or milestone in their careers. But we know almost nothing at all about them.
As Florence, Leavel tries her darndest to breathe life into this cardboard cutout of a show, but even her heroic efforts cannot save Baby It’s You! from its book. And Geno Henderson, who acts as a D.J. for the show, also puts forth a heroic effort in the numerous songs he performs. Florence’s struggle as a woman in a business dominated by men is merely mentioned in passing. Her interracial affair with Luther Dixon (played by a dashing Allan Louis) is given almost no political or cultural significance. The show’s ending, which is just happy enough with a little touch of bittersweet sadness thrown in, inspired no sadness or catharsis. Instead, it just brought relief.