Baby It's You!, the new Broadway musical about Florence Greenberg and The Shirelles, has an audience. The problem is that audience won't care that the show has a barely-there book, no character development, bad sound design, and no dramatic impetus beyond get to the next song. The people who will enjoy this show are the ones who love this era of music and don't care about professional standards in theater. Though I love the girl group music of the 1960s, I am not one of the people who can ignore gross incompetence in professional theater and just go with the flow; my mother is one of the people who can ignore bad theater and she thoroughly enjoyed her concert experience (because her ticket was free). Let me start with the limited good. Beth Leavel, the Tony Award-winning actress from The Drowsy Chaperone, manages to convince the audience her interpretation of cardboard cut-out Florence Greenberg is at least a partially developed character. Unlike many of her co-stars, she knows that turning your lips down signifies sadness and raising your eyebrows can register surprise or incredulity depending on the degree of alteration. Her vocal is strong and she tries to make repetitive 1960s song lyrics sound meaningful and deep.
The costumes in this show are bright, vibrant, and appropriately stagey. The Shirelles get the best of the lot, dancing around on stage in coordinated sequins, feathers, and metallics that almost convince you this is a well-conceived show.
The problem is everything else that can turn an opportunistic jukebox musical into an enjoyable night of theater. I do not understand how book writers Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott took one of the most remarkable rises to fame and power in the music industry--Florence Greenberg's actual life story--and managed to make it feel more out of touch with reality than the lowly Victorian street urchin discovering he has a long lost great uncle who will make him a wealthy man after years of suffering. In this version of her story, Florence wakes up one morning and decides she's a record executive. She names The Shirelles on first sight, prints their first record, sells out to a major label, and insists she will never ever bow down to the man again in the first five minutes of the show. If only the book actually specified these events happened beyond barely expositional dialog, the show might have had something going for it. To call what happens in that boring dialog expositional is an insult to writers who don't know the difference between showing and telling a story. Baby It's You! doesn't care if you understand what is happening or not. It just cares that it got the rights to these songs and the life story of Florence Greenberg. Anything else they stumble into that is close to decent is an accident.
Maybe the show would get by if the concert experience of the non-existent narrative was well done. It's not. People in the audience are goaded to sing along with a "come on, everybody" or the overuse of waving arms like the actors are trying to land an airplane onstage. I might have even joined in if the live actors didn't sound like they were performing the music through a series of tin cans and bits of twine connected to broken speakers. The conceit is to mimic the recorded sound of these records, but it is used on every mic in every song regardless of context; even when The Shirelles are recording in the studio, it doesn't sound any good. I struggled to understand the lyrics throughout the whole show and the melody at certain parts. The omni-present orchestra, set in the background on a light up and rotating behemoth of a bandstand, routinely overpowered the singers. The few times I heard a clear vocal were enjoyable, but had no bearing on the actual narrative of the show.
Speaking of that behemoth of a bandstand, the sets in this show are ugly. The projection screens roll out with brick facades that make the grainy period photographs look like they are being shown in a big screen TV from the 1980s. The worst offender onstage is the metallic flecked and led-riddled curtain in front of the bandstand. When that sucker gets turned on, you can't see what's happening in front of you. The neon colors bounce off every surface and shine so bright they hurt your eyes. This curtain is also set to rise and part from the middle, creating an unfortunate and distracting waving effect every time the curtain is dropped on the orchestra; the curtain is dropped on the orchestra every other song.
As if not being able to understand the songs wasn't bad enough, the show decides that it's better to do excerpts of songs five times in the show rather than let the audience hear the whole song, applaud the actors, and absorb its importance to the show. There are scenes where you can't tell who is singing what part where at what time or for what reason. Florence Greenberg will be singing somewhere when The Shirelles show up in silhouette lip-syncing to a grainy recording while Florence's husband paces on the opposite side of the stage and Jocko the DJ starts riffing on political history. This is not an exaggeration of how poorly the songs are used; this is a simplification of how hectic they actually become.
If you don't mind spending over a hundred dollars to see a concert of 1960s music and are willing to overlook the horrible sound design, you might enjoy Baby It's You!. However, my mother who enjoyed the show said she would have walked out if she had actually paid for the tickets. Avoid this show if you expect Broadway theater to have a plot, characters, proper sound design, and sets you can look at without getting a migraine.
Full disclosure: I received two free tickets to Baby It's You! from a marketing firm hired to pull in social media users and build word of mouth for the show. Beyond being able to brag that I saw this disaster of a musical the same way older theater-goers can share stories of Shogun the Musical and Starmites, I'm beginning to wish I never got the free tickets. These free tickets caused more aggravation with a horrible night of theater than they did any good for me.