BABY THAT’S ROCK ‘N’ ROLL, THE SONGS OF LEIBER AND STOLLER
Royal George Theatre Center
The title of the glorified show-lounge revue now running at the Royal George, Baby That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, required lengthy debate among its New York-based producers, a recent New Yorker article reveals. In “Betting on Broadway,” a June 13 profile of Jujamcyn Theaters’ Rocco Landesman, journalist David Owen recounts a conversation Landesman and his partners had about their new property, a musical based on the songs of rock and soul hitmeisters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. “Some Cats Know” was rejected early on, though coproducer Richard Frankel liked it because “It has Beatness”; so was “Stand By Me,” which might have invited a lawsuit from the makers of the movie. Someone suggested “Yakety Yak,” but Frankel shot that down because “that song . . . and all the Coasters songs are just novelty songs. They’re disposable. I hope they’re all in a medley in the show.”
Frankel should be pleased with Baby That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (the generic-sounding name is offset by the subtitle The Songs of Leiber and Stoller). Virtually the whole show’s a medley, a slickly staged stew of golden and moldy oldies penned by the most successful pop team of the 50s. Baby barges through about 45 songs (including several reprises) in an intermissionless 105 minutes, barely pausing for breath; the brisk pace generates considerable energy, but it also robs the performers of much chance to establish personas. Despite their tremendous talent (and costume designer William Ivey Long’s eye-popping ensembles of casual clothes and formal wear–what, no swimsuits?), the cast’s six men and four women remain fairly anonymous. The sentimental opening number “Neighborhood,” with its reference to “friends we used to know . . . where did they go?” leads the audience to expect sharply defined dramatic contexts for the songs; so does Heidi Landesman’s evocative 50s-urban set, with its abstract expressionist use of color, metal catwalks, and neon martini glasses and stiletto-heeled shoes.
But even with the uncredited help of Broadway director Susan Schulman, who was flown in as a technical consultant before the production opened, director-choreographer Otis Sallid rarely establishes any but the most simplistic situations: lonely guys looking longingly at passing girls, couples quarreling at cafe tables, synchronized male-quartet dancing. Sallid’s a solid choreographer–his movement has all the style, sass, and sexiness missing from the dances in Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace’s West Side Story, for instance. But he tends to settle into predictable, two-dimensional patterns that reflect his background in TV commercials, music videos, and awards shows.
Another persistent problem (as Frankel inadvertently pointed out in the New Yorker-transcribed discussion) is that much of the material is disposable. “We don’t write songs,” Leiber and Stoller said, “we write records.” Tunes like “Young Blood,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Hound Dog” (heard here in both its bluesy Big Mama Thornton and hyped-up Elvis Presley versions) were vehicles for stars and for production innovations like adding strings to sweeten an R & B track. The original recordings are enduring entertainment, and of course they have tremendous nostalgia appeal. But pulled together on a stage, the material lacks dramatic texture and musical variety; almost all of it was written for one purpose–to part teenagers from their allowances–and that adolescent appeal shows in the songs’ emotional shallowness and artificial intensity. Sallid’s determination to pack as much as possible into one act further exposes the music’s flaws. Occasional gems like “Spanish Harlem” and “On Broadway”–songs with a welcome specificity of setting and character–are likely to be followed by throwaways like “Love Potion No. 9” and “Girls, Girls, Girls,” which cut short the emotional flow.
I would be remiss if I failed to state that the audience at the Sunday matinee I attended gave the show a standing ovation. Why not? Baby That’s Rock ‘n’ Roll is a calculated crowd pleaser, a button pusher for baby boomers, and the singing is spectacular. High points include brassy belter B.J. Crosby’s gospel-tinged “Fools Fall in Love”; Ken Ard’s husky, sultry “Spanish Harlem”; Brenda Braxton’s slyly stylish ode to a deposed playboy, “Don Juan”; and a cleverly choreographed “Shoppin’ for Clothes,” in which Victor Cook dances with four oversize anthropomorphized suits. Cook’s screaming rendition of “I (Who Have Nothing)” also had the audience cheering, though I thought it was a bathetic bad joke. And who could resist singing and clapping along with the vibrantly harmonized finale, “Stand By Me”?
But as I left the theater I couldn’t help recalling the question posed by another Leiber-Stoller number, one not sung here: Is that all there is?