Friday, July 8, 2011

How Much Will You Enjoy 'Baby It's You'? Tell Me How Old You Are, and I'll Let You Know!

How can you predict the extent to which you are likely to enjoy the journey into nostalgia referred to—usually in a scornful way—as the “jukebox musical?”

As it happens, I’ve seen three of these in recent weeks, and I’ve been thinking about my own reaction to them, as well as why people seem to either love them or hate them.

Indeed, why such a passionate response either way? Everyone knows what a jukebox musical is—a forum for performing a collection of songs associated with an individual singer, a once-popular singing group, or a particular era. If you go, why would you expect to be even remotely surprised? It is what it is.

So, here’s my hypothesis. Let’s call it ProfMiller’s First Law on the Pleasures to Be Obtained from Jukebox Musicals.

I attribute everything to puberty.

That’s the time in your life when you began to develop your own musical tastes. Those songs, whatever they may be, embed themselves permanently into your head and heart, so that whenever you hear them—even decades later—they carry you back to a place and time when all of this was new. It’s part of how you come to identify with your cohort group, your generation.

Given this premise, how could I fail to like Baby It’s You!? It’s my music, the soundtrack of my young adolescence, the tunes that emerged from my transistor radio and enveloped me day and night.

For what it’s worth, there is also a story to be told, in this case one that is based on the life and times of Florence Greenberg, the middle-aged housewife from Long Island who established her own record label and shepherded the careers of the Shirelles, the Kingsmen, the Isley Brothers, and Dionne Warwick.

Admittedly, what there is of a storyline is slim and has more holes than Swiss cheese. It’s the target audience of baby boomers who need to fill in with their own recollections of life in post-war suburbia, the emerging battle for women’s rights and racial equality, payola as a way of doing business in the record world, and the rapidly changing musical tastes across generations. If you don’t know about these things, you may have a hard time latching on to the significance of the unfolding events.

But, if like me, you are of a certain age, the more than two dozen songs featured in Baby It’s You!—performed by a talented and energetic cast—will give you ample reason to put this on your list of "must sees."  To name but a few of the hits: ‘Book of Love,’ ‘Mama Said,’  ‘Dedicated to the One I Love,’ ‘Shout,” and ‘Soldier Boy.’ Are you singing along already? 

Among the performers, standouts are Christina Sajous as Shirley, lead singer of the Shirelles; Allan Louis as Luther Dixon, the African American record producer who became Greenberg’s business partner and lover; and Geno Henderson in several different roles, including those of singer Ronald Isley, and Jocko, a popular and influential DJ.

Mostly, though, the show belongs to Beth Leavel as the gritty and determined Greenberg, who unexpectedly leaves her husband and children to make her own way in the world of record producing. Leavel, who is a terrific belter in her own right, displays an air of gritty defiance that seems to be aimed as much at the critics of the poorly reviewed Baby It’s You!  as the world that her character reshaped by willpower alone. She seems to be saying to the audience, “to hell with the critics. I know why you’re here, and we’re going have a great time together!” The crowd at the sold-out performance I attended seemed to agree, as do I.

As for the thin script, it’s less thin that those that were written for the Beatles show, Rain,  which is little more than a tribute concert, or for Million Dollar Quartet, co-written by Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott, who also did the book for Baby It’s You!

Your enjoyment of Rain or Million Dollar Quartet will also rest on your familiarity with and level of nostalgia for their music. For me, Million Dollar Quartet, with the songs of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, represents a time just prior to my own golden age of popular music, and Rain represents the music of my later adolescence. There are plenty of pleasures to be found in both of these shows, but it is the sounds of the early 1960s that are on glorious display in Baby It’s You! that resonate most for me and why I consider it to be a terrific choice for a night out.

Will you like it as much?  It depends.  When were you born?

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