In the Eisenhower late-1950s, a housewife and mother did not suddenly come to the realization that there was life outside her kitchen and living room and traipse off to the big city in search of something more. She did not suddenly decide to “get into” the record business, even if her children were nearly grown and off on their own, and not even if told by her daughter, “Mom, there are some girls in my high school who sing so well they could be recording stars.”  No. Back then housewives and mothers in Passaic, New Jersey knew that their place was in the home and they stayed there … all but one, all but Florence Greenberg. Florence saw that there was indeed life away from the  suburbs, a life in New York City, and the four high school girls her daughter Mary Jane was telling her about became the first big girl group of the 1960s, The Shirelles, under contract to Scepter Records, Florence’s very own label. 


The Shirelles’ recording of Burt Bacharach’s “Baby It’s You” became a Top Ten hit early in 1962, and now, forty-seven years later, Baby It’s You! is the title of a terrific new musical about Florence’s life and the music of that era.

Baby It’s You! The Musical started off last year at West Hollywood’s Coast Playhouse, and its successful transfer to the much larger Pasadena Playhouse with most of its original cast intact is something that ought to happen more often to hit intimate theater musicals deserving of a bigger audience. Returning star Meeghan Holaway gives an exciting, touching lead performance as Florence, completely disappearing into the skin of the Jersey housewife with dreams too big for her small town life.  

Before we meet Mrs. Greenberg, though, DJ Jocko (Geno Henderson) establishes the sounds and look of the late 50s by introducing live performances of “Mr. Lee,” “Book Of Love,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and “Hush-A-Bye,” Jason H. Thompson’s spiffy projection design flashing record jackets, movie posters, and news photos to further set the scene.

We then cut to the Passaic, NJ kitchen of the Greenbergs—Florence, Bernie (Barry Pearl), and their grown kids Stanley (Adam Irizarry) and Mary Jane (Suzanne Petrela). Though most of the songs in Baby It’s You! are sung as recording studio or concert performances by “the artists who made them hits,” this first scene establishes that (in American Musical Theater tradition), characters will occasionally burst into song when spoken words do not suffice. Florence complains to Bernie that “Mama Said” (there’d be days like this), to which Bernie responds that (as usual) his wife is all “Yakety Yak,” and son Stanley expresses frustration that the only thing he ever hears from his parents is “Get A Job.”  (All three songs are, of course, hits from that era.)

Mary Jane then introduces Mom to her Passaic High classmates Shirley Owens, Beverly Lee, Addie “Micki” Harris, and Doris Coley, who perform their self-penned “I Met Him On A Sunday” so winningly that Florence is convinced that the quartet could top the record charts in no time if properly packaged (and with a name switch from The Poquellos to The Shirelles).  Florence signs them to her recently formed Tiara Records, but is soon pressured by Decca Records bigwig Milt Gabler (Pearl again) into selling both the label and The Shirelles to Decca. Fortunately for Flo and the girls, the Shirelles flop, Florence gets them back, and having learned from her mistakes, creates a new label, Scepter Records, which goes on to have hit after hit.

In both career and personal life, Florence Greenberg was a trailblazer.  Not only did she become a player in the recording industry but she did the unthinkable; she fell in love with another man while still married to left-behind-in-Passaic Bernie, and with a “Negro” to boot.  (Recall that until 1967, anti-miscegenation laws made interracial marriages illegal in sixteen states.)  The man who became Florence’s partner in life and in business as well was Luther Dixon (Allan Louis), a songwriter/producer responsible for dozens of 50s and 60s hits, and though in Baby It’s You!, Flo and Luther seem about the same age, in real life, Dixon was 28 to Greenberg’s 48.  (If one can forgive Florence her infidelity, her choice of men does seem to inspire a hearty, “You go girl!”)

Baby It’s You! works on many levels. First and foremost, it pays respectful but honest tribute to a woman whose name may not be a household word, but whose hit songs remain Golden Oldies to this day.  Secondly, it succeeds as a nostalgic but accurate recreation of a time and place in America’s not-so-distant past. Thirdly, and most excitingly, it features sensational live performances of over three dozen 1950s and 1960s hit songs, including “Since I Don’t Have You,” “He’s So Fine,” “Soldier Boy,” “Foolish Little Girl,” “Any Day Now,” and “Tonight’s The Night.”  

Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux’s book may be a bit too much a standard (albeit fascinating) biodrama to make Baby It’s You! the kind of monster hit that the more imaginative Jersey Boys has become, but what it does, it does very well indeed.  For anyone who remembers the songs of that era, its nostalgia factor will certainly serve as a plus, however the cheers of Thursday night’s teenage audience members prove that even with little or no knowledge of the era, Baby It’s You! can touch and energize an audience.

In addition to the divine Holaway, a performer who can sing with the best of musical theater stars as she wins you over with her first-rate acting chops, the all-around stupendous cast features great work from the ever-funny Pearl as both Bernie and the Decca exec, a powerful turn from silken-voiced Louis as the man who stole Flo’s heart, and memorable performances by a quartet of triple-threats (Erica Ash, Berlando Drake, Paulette Ivory, and Crystal Starr Knighton) who so completely disappear into the gowns and wigs of The Shirelles that one forgets that they are contemporary recording and musical theater talents.  Ivory, who stole hearts in Pearlie a few years back at the Playhouse, also gets to sing a pair of Dionne Warwick’s greatest early hits, “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk On By,” and though her voice doesn’t really recall Warwick’s, she sings the heck out of both songs.  Besides playing Jocko, Henderson has show-stopping turns as Ron Isley (“Twist And Shout’), Chuck Jackson (“Since I Don’t Have You”), and Gene Chandler (“Duke Of Earl”). Matt McKenzie does excellent work as Flo’s business partner Marvin Schlacter. As the two young adult Greenberg offspring, co-music director Irizarry and Petrela give tiptop performances.  The former sings such swoon-inspiring high notes that he’d make a perfect Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, and the latter (whose song was ignominiously cut from Mask after its first preview) finally gets to show off those great Petrela pipes in “You’ve Really Got A Hold” and (as Lesley Gore) in a snippet of “It’s My Party.”

Co-writer Mutrux gets high marks for his snappy direction, and his choreographer wife Birgitte Mutrux has excitingly recreated those distinctive 50s and 60s dance moves. Music legend Richard Perry is both music supervisor and arranger, and it doesn’t get better than that. 

Anna Louizos’s striking set design works in tandem with Thompson’s projections to transport us from recording studio to suburban kitchen to the stage of the Apollo Theatre, and is complemented by Howell Binkley’s splashy lighting design. Martin Carrillo’s sound design turns the Pasadena Playhouse into a 50s/60s concert hall.  Lizz Wolf’s costumes, Carol Doran’s wig and hair design, and Bryon J. Batista’s make-up design are period perfect, and gorgeous to boot.  (Batista also serves as associate hair and wig designer.) The sole fashion distraction is the entirely 2009 look of the fabulous onstage band. If you’re visible to the audience, you should look as well as sound the part.

Baby It’s You! follows in the footsteps of Ray Charles Live! in recreating an important era of American music history. This time, though, the accent is behind the scenes, and Florence Greenberg’s story is one well worth telling and remembering. In the accomplished hands behind Baby It’s You!, the New Jersey housewife turned music VIP finally gets her moment center stage.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
November 19, 2009
                                                                             Photos: Michael Lamont

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