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BWW Reviews: LEADER OF THE PACK Closes Totem Pole Playhouse 2013 Season

Totem Pole Playhouse closes its 2013 season with LEADER OF THE PACK: THE Ellie Greenwich MUSICAL. If you know who Ellie Greenwich was, and Wall of Sound fans like this reviewer certainly do, then the doo-wop and girl group music and lyrics for the show should be obvious; you won't be disappointed by the selection. Although women's presence in producing popular music was historically slight until recently, Greenwich accounted for a substantial proportion of Phil Spector's (called Gus Sharkey in the show, perhaps a commentary on Spector's predatory habits) greatest hits both in writing and in production. The book, originally termed "liner notes", for the show is by Anne Beatts, herself a female pioneer in television and comedy writing, though there's additional material to the book by Jack Heifner. The Totem Pole production is directed by George Grant, who's also directed at Horizons Theatre Co. and at the Kennedy Center.

The original show began as a revue at The Bottom Line in Greenwich (no relation to Ellie) Village, at which point it was expanded considerably, and moved to the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway. Although it did receive a Tony nod for Best Musical (it lost to BIG RIVER), it closed after only 120 performances with a great deal of producer conflict. The show in fact is much like the Wall of Sound itself - far more style - and volume, both in hair and in musical levels - than substance.

In fact, the Ellie Greenwich story is given short shrift here; although it's the stuff of high drama in real life, you'd be hard-pressed to know much about her from the show other than that she was a cute, talented songwriter with a bad marriage to songwriter Jeff Barry ("Tell Laura I Love Her"). You'd never know that she was offered her job at the musical works known as the Brill Building by the great musical team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, or that she commuted to the Brill Building every day after her college classes at Hofstra. Greenwich was an achiever and a survivor, one of New York's great session singers, and a noted producer, a hit-making soul music composer as well as a generator of Sixties teen pop. (When she died in 2009, over 20 years after this play was first staged, rockers Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen immediately dedicated songs to her in their live concerts.)

So it's slight - very slight; it's a jukebox musical. But like Greenwich's music, it's got a beat, you can dance to it. Contributing to that is the cast, notably Kathy Calahan as Ellie herself, who has all the perkiness required to convey Greenwich's early Sixties persona, Tim Falter as her co-writer and sometime husband, Jeff Barry, who is a very strong singer, and Kara-Tameika Watkins as a splashy, soulful Darlene Love, narrator as well as chanteuse. (In the original performances of the original show, Love played herself, ideal casting for true fans of the musical genre.) Gus Sharkey is played by Richard Sautter, who as a Phil Spector clone not surprisingly gets all the good lines, and clearly relishes the fact. Equally contributing to that, in order to produce a real Wall of Sound effect, is the orchestra, notably Barbara Irvine on keyboard, who turns her Roland keyboard into a virtual Hammond B-3 to produce a true early Sixties sound.

Unfortunately, the effect is precisely the same as the original Wall of Sound itself - the music at many points completely obscures the lyrics and sometimes the voices, rendering them unintelligible to anyone who isn't already familiar with these particular hits, and making many of the musical numbers difficult as well even for those who do know the songs. This is a full stage show, not a 45-rpm single made with Sixties production quality being played on a portable monaural turntable; the need for having the pit playing over the singing to this degree simply isn't there. It does need to be turned down, or the singers need to be boosted.

There's also the question of costuming - this isn't quite the Totem Pole's usual standard. The six ensemble members, three women singing as girl groups as well as filling in as characters, and three men doing the same, for the most part throughout the show are glaringly mismatched in their clothing in pattern, color, and style, something no self-respecting Sixties group would allow. Perhaps it's thought necessary in order to avoid costume changes when they appear as background cast members with dialogue, since there are many rapid on/off moments, but the lack of coordination - the outfits needn't be identical for it to be effective - is almost painful to watch. A blue plaid Catholic school jumper right beside a miniskirt of shades-of-orange vertical stripes simply does not work for an alleged performing group. It especially doesn't work for the Shangri-Las, who were intended by Phil Spector to be viewed as "bad girls" of sorts, who wore then-scandalous black.

Fortunately, the set itself, another of James Fouchard's constructions, is, as always, stunning. It's minimalist yet American Bandstand at the same time, and the effect is splendid, with multiple tiers, steps, and walkways reminiscent of last season's set for COLE though it's clearly not identical.

The styling of ElizaBeth Angelozzi's choreography is for the most part lovely - say, some guy there knows how to Madison - but the movement in the first act feels slow compared to the concert-style action in the second half. Is this a dramatic choice by the director? If so, it's not clear just with what it's supposed to contrast. Admittedly, watching footage of the Ronettes and the Shirelles in action gives huge gestures and frequently slow steps in their routines, but while that's great when the cast is costumed and clearly performing full routines in the first half, it doesn't quite fit with the purely street-clothing moments. Perhaps we're back to that awkward costuming matter; it may be viewer confusion as to whom the ensemble members are representing at the moment (is that a Shirelle or an office worker who's just burst into song?).

One wants to see Totem Pole end the season on a high note - and Calahan and Watkins provide several of those for us when they sing. There are things to love about this show - Watkins' Darlene Love, Calahan's accordion and her insouciant cheeriness as Ellie Greenwich, Sautter's off-the-wall music producer Sharkey, and Tim Falter are all worth the price of admission. The selection of songs is a Wall of Sound treasure chest, guaranteed to please doo-wop, girl group, and Motown fans. And even though love doesn't conquer all - though Darlene Love just may - it's a show that ends on a very definite up beat, not just because of the concert moments at the end, but because Ellie does come through it all at last.

And everyone loves a happy ending.

At Totem Pole Playhouse through September 1. Call 717-352-2164 or visit totempoleplayhouse.org for tickets.

Photo courtesy of Totem Pole Playhouse.



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