Baby boomers should wax nostalgic over "Leader of the Pack," a glitzy staged concert of '60s songs that took over at the Ambassador last night.
"Rogers and Hammerstein, it ain't," somebody remarked at the end of the 90-minute affair. Sondheim, it ain't, either. It's the beat, going on and on through love lyrics considerably less sophisticated than, say, those of "There Ought to Be a Moonlight Saving Time."
The show, with scads of gaudy costumes and lots of lively dancing, had its beginnings last year at the Bottom Line. It is made up wholly of songs, including the title number created by Ellie Greenwich "and friends." They almost all date from the first half of the '60s, when such groups as the Ronettes, Shangri-Las and Shirelles were hot and winning Ellie and friends Grammys, as many as six in one year, that year being the one in which the Beatles copped 10. And it was the emergence and rapid dominance of the British rockers which cut short the dazzling Greenwich career. Now a matronly and brassy looking blond, who appears near the end, she is writing again and her concert closes with her latest, "We're Gonna Make It (After All)."
Though two genuine rockers, Darlene Love and Annie Golden, are in the cast, the most striking vocal performance is given by Pattie Darcy on a platform while a nicely choreographed ballroom pas de deux is taking place below. But the most touching moment occurs when Darlene Love, for whom the piece was written, gets a chance to sing "River Deep Mountain High," which somehow got into the hands of Tina Turner to become one of that incandescant performer's hits. The performance by Love and the company is effective, but one couldn't help thinking how Tina would have blown the show through the roof.
Dinah Manoff, in a blond wig, plays the younger Greenwich through most of the show, with a handsome and vocally forceful Patrick Cassidy portraying Ellie's chief collaborator and former husband, Jeff Barry. Dennis Bailey scowls impressively as "Gus Sharkey," whom I took to be a stand-in for producer-collaborator Phil Spector.
Among the many talented dancers, put through slick routines by the show's overall director Michael Peters, Keith McDaniel stands out.
Tony Walton has designed an amusing set of colored disc platforms, which looks like 45 rpm records forming a circular staircase on a turntable. Robert de Mora is responsible for the flashy and ingenious costumes and Pamela Cooper for the complimentary lighting.
If, like me, you are unfamiliar with most of this stuff ("Da Doo Ron Ron," "Hanky Panky," "Be My Baby"), you'll probably find the evening, active as it is, monotonous at times. "Leader of the Pack," in spite of snatches of story-telling, is no Broadway musical in the usual sense. Not by a long shot. But the beat goes on.
With a buzz of beehive hairdos, and a yelp of '60s mating calls, The Leader of the Pack - which might be thought of as The Return of Grease or The Revenge of Hair - screeched mildly into the Ambassador Theater last night.
It is scarcely a Broadway musical. It apparently started life as a revue at the cabaret, the Bottom Line, and the bottom line is that it should have stayed there.
It purports briefly - the whole intermissionless show only lasts about 90 decibel-packed minutes - to give us the life and music of Ellie Greenwich, the backstage high priestess of pop, queen of music publishing's Brill Building, in the early '60s.
Miss Greenwich's life, from her accordion-squeezing youth back in Levittown, L.I., through her marriage, and subsequent divorce, with her most frequent collaborator, Jeff Barry, is scarcely the fabric of legends.
Local girl writes pop. Local girl makes good. Local girl gets married. Local girl gets divorced. Local girl fades away. But the melody lingers on. No wonder. Local girl has already sold 30 million records.
No wonder, also, that this show doesn't have a book, merely something called "Liner Notes" by Anne Beatts.
Curiously - as the musical is supposed to be based on Miss Greenwich's life - that extraordinary rock impresario-plus, Phil Spector, is notably absent.
It seems strange that the man who created the concept of "The Wall of Sound," receives a creative credit on 14 of the 24 songs that make up the show, and is referred to as "brilliant" by Miss Greenwich in a program note, does not appear as a character in the show.
Instead, in his Svengali role, we have someone called "Gus Sharkey," who seems to be the spectre of Spector. But the sound of Spector is heard, and it is the sound that made WABC and Cousin Brucie famous, in those days of rock innocence before the full impact of the vastly more gifted Beatles had led the pack of the British invasion.
Some of the old songs, with their pre-Vietnam, lyrical nonsensicality, are still lovely.
Do Wa Diddy, Da Doo Ron Ron, Leader of the Pack (complete with revving-up obligato), River Deep, Mountain High, and, best of all, Chapel of Love, have left a permanent mark on the music and the history of their times.
The power of pop music and nostalgia - even though, like pop music itself, nostalgia is never what it was - is, as Noel Coward once memorably noted, still potent.
As a result Leader of the Pack will doubtless make its strongest appeal to its particular generation, now early middle-aged yuppies.
But musically, what the show calls, "this journey through the record kingdom" will strike responsive chords in all but the deaf and the dead. Also it strikes my admittedly none-too-tutored ears that the actual sound of the music is very faithfully reproduced.
And remember this is not a pastiche like Grease, or even like the great rock musical Hair. This is the actual music - so the show can in part be compared with a cabaret musical like Ain't Misbehavin' or Side by Side by Sondheim.
So, musically, if you want a conducted tour through Greenwich's village, this seems a pretty true bill. But what, if anything, does it gain from the staging? What are its credentials as a Broadway musical, rather than an old-time songbook anthology?
Well, there sure ain't no drama. Not even what I take to be a new number, Rock of Rages, helps much here.
We open with a dance routine no better and not much worse than the type of Peter Gennaro TV dance routine popular in the period. And from then on in, the staging is stymied by the show's unimaginative nature.
The designer Tony Walton has had a very neat idea of placing the action on a revolving stage inside the platters of a giant juke-box, a super idea. Or at least it would be for one number. As a total design concept it soon becomes as monotonous as the permanent setting in a cabaret, but more obtrusive.
Dinah Manoff proves modestly appealing as the young Ellie, Patrick Cassidy shows a terrific, only partially realized, potential as the young Jeff, and Dennis Bailey is creepily attractive as the record king who is the cream of the Brill.
Annie Golden and Darlene Love - the latter finally getting to sing River Deep, Mountain High, which it seems she wanted in the days of Ike and Tina Turner - shine out as originals in a sea of copies.
And then there is the personal appearance of Miss Greenwich herself.
Although in a sense this may be intended to put a topper of the show - because, of course, Miss Greenwich was not actually a well-known performer in her heyday - it actually stops whatever momentum the show had, which was already trickling a bit, dead in its tracks.
On the other hand, how could you end the show? Perhaps by never starting it, and just issuing a record album.
Because that is precisely what Leader of the Pack is. A record album with sketchy and sanitized biographical liner notes - by a rather down Miss Beatts - and even sketchier illustrations.
Although there are as yet no candidates in the competition for best musical of the Broadway season, the race for most calamitous musical has gained a strong new contender with ''Leader of the Pack,'' a purported tribute to golden rock-and-roll oldies at the Ambassador. While not as pointless as ''The Three Musketeers'' or as lengthy as ''Harrigan 'n Hart'' or as becalmed as ''Quilters,'' this show does lead the pack in such key areas as incoherence (total), vulgarity (boundless) and decibel level (stratospheric, with piercing electronic feedback).
What makes ''Leader of the Pack'' a particularly impressive fiasco, however, is that it, unlike its competitors, didn't have the advantage of starting off with a humdrum score. There are some fun songs in this show, and one can only wonder at the ingenuity and strenuous effort required to stamp the life out of nearly all of them.
Most of those songs were written by Ellie Greenwich and her then husband, Jeff Barry, in the early 1960's. Like Tin Pan Alley songsmiths of an earlier day, the team toiled in the Brill Building on Broadway, churning out material for immediate sale in the pop marketplace. The Greenwich- Barry specialty was so-called girl-group music, fashioned for such female trios or quartets as the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes and the Crystals. Their archetypal efforts - ''Chapel of Love,'' ''Hanky Panky,'' ''Maybe I Know'' - can still evoke an innocent era of teen romance. Among the many undying Greenwich-Barry fans are not only nostalgic American children of the 60's but also even so unlikely an enthusiast as the high-minded hero of Tom Stoppard's play ''The Real Thing.''
In ''Leader of the Pack,'' the songs meld into one long screech. They're delivered by mostly charmless performers whose primary responsibility is to model an extravagant assortment of hideous costumes and grotesquely campy beehive wigs. Even the band arrangements are garish: If the legendary 60's rock-record producer Phil Spector erected a ''wall of sound,'' this show drops a shroud of sheer noise. Of two dozen numbers, only one captures the spirit of Greenwich-Barry pop. The appealing Darlene Love, an actual veteran of the girl-group era, provides a tumultuous, gospel-flavored rendition of Tina Turner's one-time signature anthem, ''River Deep, Mountain High.''
Between the songs, there is a book such as Broadway has not encountered since the dumbfounding Marilyn Monroe musical biography, ''Marilyn,'' of 1983. While the intention appears to be to chronicle the backstage story of Greenwich (Dinah Manoff) and Barry (Patrick Cassidy), the splintery scenes all seem to begin and end offstage and frequently feature characters whose identities are known only to the authors.
Then again, the identities of the authors are also unclear. The Playbill lists no book credit for ''Leader of the Pack,'' although it does hold a trio of writers responsible for the musical's ''liner notes'' (Anne Beatts), ''additional material'' (Jack Heifner) and ''original concept'' (Melanie Mintz). One only hopes that future theater historians will determine who devised the Jewish-mother and knock-knock jokes that are the show's most sophisticated stabs at humor - or who came up with the undeniably original concept of beginning a musical set in the 60's with an underpopulated Las Vegas-style conga line that, we're told, represents ''the 80's.''
The production's director-choreographer is Michael Peters - a co-creator of such high-style rock entertainments as the Motown girl-group musical ''Dreamgirls'' and Michael Jackson's music videos. ''Leader of the Pack'' looks nothing like ''Dreamgirls'' or an MTV extravaganza, though it might pass for a banana republic's revival of ''Your Hit Parade.'' A lengthy prom sequence is so sparsely decorated that the prom might well be taking place in a reform school. In the title song, motorcycles are represented by prancing chorus men holding bicycle handlebars - and, even so, they soon disappear into a smoke effect that leaves the closest spectators gasping for breath. While every number also comes equipped with choreography, the repetitive boogie routines are less reminiscent of dance crazes of the 60's or 80's than of production numbers in Academy Awards telecasts and flop John Travolta movies.
Unlike the dancing, the script at least has the good grace to call it quits 20 minutes before the show does - with an abrupt, post-divorce nervous breakdown for a heroine who had previously seemed to possess a nervous system somewhat less developed than that of a Barbie doll. At that point, Tony Walton's uncharacteristically tacky set (rotating platforms painted to suggest 45 rpm records) also gives up the ghost, so the audience can enjoy an unimpeded view of the stage's pipe-covered rear wall.
But ''Leader of the Pack'' is determined to stretch itself to 95 minutes, and, to that end, the matronly real-life Ellie Greenwich soon wanders uneasily on stage to lead the adoring troops in a finger-snapping medley. Then comes the piece de resistance - a brand-new song with inspirational lyrics like ''We're going to make it after all'' and ''Say goodbye to all the tears and sorrow.'' It's not much of a finale, but it does send us home with renewed appreciation for the relative profundity of such vintage Greenwich compositions as ''Do Wah Diddy'' and ''Da Doo Ron Ron.''