Thursday, September 1, 2011

Theater Review: Baby It's You!

I’ve been absolutely dying to see the musical Baby It’s You! for a while now, and was thrilled when I finally got tickets to see the show. It tells the story of Florence Greenberg, a Jewish New Jersey housewife-turned-music industry mogul. After discovering an African-American four-member girl group at her daughter’s school, she names them the Shirelles and produces their first record. This becomes the initial step of Florence Greenberg’s successful career as a music executive and record label owner, and the beginning of a long road of choices she must make.

The musical explores many feminist themes; Beth Leavel, who plays Florence, even said that “it’s a great woman’s story…Florence…followed her passion. And I’m so inspired by that.” Crystal Starr Knighton, who plays a Shirelle, said, “Florence was amazing. I mean, to have a woman back then, when men ruled everything, just take center stage and say ‘look, this is what I’m gonna do,’ and bringing us four ladies and making us into the first girl group, she has an amazing story.”

When the audience is first introduced to Florence, she’s in the kitchen with her husband Bernie, who can’t understand his wife’s desire to do anything more than drive him to the train and take care of their daughter and blind son. Despite Bernie’s disapproval, Florence creates her first record company, sells it, and establishes a new one. Florence’s fate was that of most career women in the 1960s (and unfortunately, the 2000s also), as she was forced to choose between attending recording sessions and being with her family. Her son spent time with her by writing songs for the Shirelles, but her daughter was often neglected. Bernie also resented Florence’s newfound passion and the attention it took away from him.

Racial tensions were also apparent throughout the show, often intertwined with women’s issues. Early in the Shirelles’ career, Florence partnered with Luther Dixon, a successful African-American songwriter, and became romantically involved with him. When he first approached her about writing for the Shirelles, he explained that no one would take Florence seriously because she was a woman, just like his talents were dismissed because of his race; between the two of them, they could make up for the discrimination. When Bernie found out that the two were more than just business partners, he called Florence and said, “With all the yiddels in the business, you had to pick a shvartza?”

When the Shirelles were on tour and performing in pre-civil rights south, they were forced to stay in a hotel on the seedy side of town rather than the fancy hotel across the street from the theater. When Florence heard, she moved to their hotel, despite Luther’s hesitation. “If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me,” she explained.

When I found out that Baby It’s You! got poor reviews, I was shocked. I absolutely loved it, and the audience seemed to feel the same way as I did - at the end of the show, the cast sang a few oldies, and everyone was dancing in their seats. New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood dismisses the musical’s premise as yet another Broadway show for baby boomers, comparing it to a “PBS pledge-night special…devoted to oldies but goodies,” among sarcastic quips and rare compliments. I checked out Isherwood’s remarks on Million Dollar Quartet, another Mutrux/Escott jukebox musical about 1960s singers, and his comment was “It…recalls PBS documentaries…but the sometimes canned storytelling gets the job done.” Why is it that a play about four male singers can be PBSesque, but a play about four female singers and their female agent not? I doubt that Isherwood was purposely being sexist - he does say that the musical “at least offers a distaff twist” and calls Florence a “proto-feminist heroine.” However, it still bothers me that Caucasian men can be celebrated on Broadway, but African-American and Jewish women are shunted to the side.

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed Baby It’s You!, and wish it was staying on Broadway longer - it’s only playing until September 4. Get your tickets before it’s too late!

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