Energy is one of the primal mysteries. Why does it suddenly appear in one place, in a new form, while at the same time withdrawing from its previous incarnation? Why, for instance, did the dinosaurs rule the earth for 140 million years and then vanish, leaving way for the mammals (who had been alive and scurrying around as inconspicuously as possible for half of that time)? Why did Rome rise, and why did it also vanish? Admittedly, these are awfully big questions to pose when considering the merits of a pop musical, but bear with me.
The point is, the same kind of energy transfers take place on a more mundane level. And although one can undertake to explain them in terms of markets and sociological shifts, the end result has the same feeling of mystery and finality.
For instance, think for a minute of the wonderful popular ballads of the 1930s and '40s -- the mixture of romance, wit, melancholy and eroticism. The feeling these Tin Pan Alley odes evoke and the situations they address may at times be mawkish or sentimental, but they are never childish. And then, for some reason, the energy shifted, the mood evaporated -- not instantaneously, but remorselessly.
Some time in the '50s, popular music became adolescent. Vibrantly, irresistibly adolescent. At first. The darker side of adolescent self-indulgence was a decade or two farther down the road.
Leader of the Pack, recently given a rip-roaring, sell-out run at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, traces the career of Ellie Greenwich, one of the prime movers of that burst of musical energy. Bill Walker's remarkable set was a giant chrome-plated fantasia: life in the garish glory of a jukebox window, where such Greenwich hits as "And Then He Kissed Me," "Chapel of Love" (from our own Dixie Cups) and "Not Too Young to Get Married" wore out needles, playing arms, gears and pinions from tens of millions of plays.
A jukebox is where the music belongs, after all (not, for instance, in a night club). In fact, the jukebox in question would not be found in a seedy juke joint. It would more likely sit in a suburban high school hangout, for the leader of the pack and his grinding Harley are figments of a hyperactive teen imagination. Gangsta rappers may get busted for packing heat; Ellie Greenwich (who sang the song, as well as writing it) would not likely be found straddling a Hell's Angel. In any case, the visual setting is part of the show's punch, and, at Le Petit, they got it right.
Leader of the Pack is about hit songs from the '60s. And once again, under the stage and musical direction of Brandt Blocker, Le Petit got it right. From the first entrance of Dana Webb -- garbed in a sequined purple backless gown, pink elbow-length gloves and 20-megaton attitude -- belting "Be My Baby" to the finger-popping finale, when the entire 30-plus ensemble raised the roof with "Da Doo Ron Ron," there was hardly a dull moment.
The rock 'n' roll poured out at such a pace, I find it difficult to stop and spotlight individual performances. Cynthia Owen was stunning, of course. So was Jolanda Ratcliff. Nori Pritchard and E. Lamont Leonard kept right up to the high level their co-performers set. Michelle Marcotte was charming as Ellie, and ably supported by Brian Rosenberg as Jeff Barry, her partner in love and art; C. Patrick Gendusa as Gus Sharkey, the rock 'n' roll impresario; Jennifer Richardson, as Ellie's mother; and Jauné Pritchard and Nori Pritchard as Ellie's girlhood chums.
All this good-time jumping and jiving is tied together by a story line. Sort of. In between the numbers, we follow the career of Ellie Greenwich as she rises from an 11-year-old accordion-playing kid in Levittown to an award-winning luminary of the pop music scene. This series starts out with a humorous take on young Ellie's aspirations and escalate into a sound-bite soap opera of the trials and tribulations of success, in which deaths and divorces with their attendant grief are encapsulated in exchanges of one or two phrases. Pretty lame stuff. It almost seems the very childishness of the music resists the docudrama pretensions of the book -- in contrast to Little Shop of Horrors, for example, where the naive fabulous quality of the story matches the mood of the songs.
At any rate, the overflow crowds at Le Petit were clearly having a ball. No wonder. Great rock 'n' roll classics sung with wild abandon by a golden-throated gang of vocalists. It's a hard act to follow.
- Cynthia Owen was stunning as usual in her performance of the Ellie Greenwich revue, Leader of the Pack, at Le Petit.