photo by John Ales

Florence Greenberg's Musical 'Baby'

Greenberg discovers Shirelles (and herself) in ’50s musical ‘Baby It’s You’

By Jana J. Monji 11/25/2009

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Just who is Florence Greenberg and why does she deserve a play?  In its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Baby, It’s You!” by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux attempts to answer that question on many levels. The easy answer is that Greenberg discovered the first American girl rock group to have a number one Billboard single, the Shirelles.
Greenberg doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry, but people who know who the Shirelles were should know about her. The play takes its name from the Shirelles’ 1961 hit — not their first one, but one written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David — “Baby It’s You.”

The Shirelles were four African-American girlfriends (Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Beverly Lee and Addie “Micki” Harris), who became a quartet in 1958 at their New Jersey high school. They are played here by Erica Ash (Micki), Berlando Drake (Shirley), Paulette Ivory (Beverly and also as Dionne Warwick) and Crystal Starr Knighton (Doris).

In the musical, Greenberg (Meeghan Holaway) is a stay-at-home mom whose children are ready to leave the nest. She wants something more than just being a wife, something husband Bernie (Barry Pearl) can’t understand. Greenberg’s daughter Mary Jane (Suzanne Petrela) introduces Florence to the Shirelles as they practice the song “I Met Him on a Sunday.” Florence becomes their manager and changes their name. But success initially eludes them at Florence’s first label, Tiara Records, and even when they signed with Decca Records, the Shirelles fail to generate a hit.

Dropped by Decca, the quartet comes back to Greenberg who — under the label Scepter Records and now partnered with composer Luther Dixon — finally finds the Shirelles a chart-topper with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Along the way, Greenberg becomes more involved and savvy in the ways of the music industry and her image slowly changes. Alienated from her husband, she begins a romance with Dixon — a Jewish “white” woman with a black man at a time (late 1950s and early ’60s) when some hotels and other venues still wouldn’t accept “race-mixing.”

The play seems at times stilted when looking at relationships, and not wholly convincing when heavy topics such as racism, infidelity and jealousy are addressed in the midst of a lighthearted musical. However, the production succeeds in vividly expressing the joy and energy of the songs and the era. Choreographed by Birgitte Mutrux correctly for the era and dressed by Lizz Wolf in progressively glamorous styles, the ensemble gives winning performances as the Shirelles and other acts of the time. Perhaps the hardest-working among the cast is Geno Henderson, who plays Jocko, Ron Isley, Chuck Jackson and Gene Chandler, but others in the troupe also play multiple roles.

Greenberg has fallen into obscurity, but she discovered the Shirelles, the Isley Brothers, the Kingsmen, Chuck Jackson and Dionne Warwick (introduced through Burt Bacharach and Hal David). This pioneering woman, who left home to go into a male-dominated industry, crossed racial lines and paved the way for the Supremes and girl groups of today, is certainly worth remembering. “Baby” is a tribute to woman power, delightfully wrapped in golden oldies, and a colorful portrait of America’s music scene between 1958 and 1965 — before the British Invasion, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, transformed it. Ironically, the Beatles would perform “Baby It’s You!” and record it on their 1963 album “Please, Please Me.”

“Baby It’s You” is presented by the Pasadena Playhouse by special arrangement with the American Pop Anthology, Jonathan Sanger, Jerry Katell, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures and Joan Stein, in association with Universal Music Group.

“Baby It’s You!” continues through Dec. 13 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 29 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit  PasadenaPlayhouse.org.

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