Saturday, April 23, 2011

New York, April 2011 - Day Nine, "Baby, It's You"

It’s a wonder the story of Florence Greenberg wasn’t the first jukebox musical. A housewife from Passaic, New Jersey, Greenberg discovered a group of girls at her daughter's high school and took them to the top of the charts, founding a record company and partnering – both professionally and romantically -- with songwriter and producer Luther Dixon, during a time when interracial relationships were illegal in many states. Drama, politics, love, great songs – it’s perfect material.

I can hear the pitch now. “It’s ‘Jersey Girls’ go to ‘Memphis’! That’s two Tony winners in one! How can it miss?”

As it turns out, whether it hits or misses depends on the target. Are you aiming for a somewhat sophisticated theater crowd that likes intelligence and wit and imagination – and doesn’t mind being entertained along the way? Or are you after the family from a corn-exporting state who are in New York for the first time, can’t get into “Wicked” but have already seen “The Lion King”?

The producers of “Baby It’s You” are likely praying for a success similar to that of “Jersey Boys.” They’re not going to get it. “Baby It’s You” is too didactic and simple-minded. “Jersey Boys” is simple, almost a comic book on stage (and I mean that in a good way), but it’s not simple-minded. Its book is a wonderful example of efficiency in storytelling. “Baby It’s You,” on the other hand, is constantly grabbing you by the hand, forcing its story on you. Too much gets told to the audience that we could be shown instead. And showing is a lot more powerful than telling.

“Baby It’s You” is also bubbly and shiny and colorful. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of my favorite shows are bubbly and shiny and colorful. But Florence Greenberg’s story isn’t always a bubbly one. (Florence is played by the wonderful Beth Leavel, who is the main thing that’s right about this show.) She neglected her family, was a hard-nosed businesswoman and was involved in a very controversial relationship. The show might match the story better if it was a smidge darker, a lumen or so less bright.

But I understand why the producers chose not to go down that road. Going at this material in a less conventional way involves a tremendous amount of risk. Pull it off, maybe you make something great and you win the Tony and everything’s peachy. If you don’t, there goes your money.

If, on the other hand, you focus on what makes the tourists at the TKTS booth in Times Square choose your show over “Jerusalem” or “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” or “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” you might just see some return on your investment.

After all, it is show business.

No comments: