Civic Players bring 'Leader of the Pack' to McHale stage this weekend

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Jun. 24—Leader of the Pack. Da Doo Ron Ron. Chapel of Love. Then He Kissed Me.

Darlene Love. The Shangri-La's. Ike and Tina Turner. The Ronettes.

Ellie Greenwich helped write some of the most popular songs in history for some of the best known musical acts of the 1960s and beyond.

This weekend, the Civic Players of Logansport will bring Greenwich's music to the stage when they perform "Leader of the Pack: The Ellie Greenwich Story" at the McHale Performing Arts Center, 1 Berry Lane.

It's the first musical the Civic Players have performed in three years, and they've spent three days a week for the past three months perfecting every "shooby-doo-wah".

Greenwich became a writing sensation alongside partners such as Jeff Barry and Phil Spector. The musical documents her rise to the top and subsequent challenges through the use of many of the hit songs she wrote.

"Ellie was a very strong woman," said Lorien Stair-Spicer, the show's director. "She was a brilliant writer. There is a lot of empowerment in her character, and I think that any person today, regardless of sex, can gain a lot from her confidence and enthusiasm, will and determination."

Ellie and Jeff

"I already knew a lot of the music coming into the show," said Heather Cavins, who plays the role of Greenwich.

She recalled childhood drives with her father, listening to the songs on an oldies station. He would quiz her. What song is this? Who sings it?

"To this day I still listen to those songs on the oldies station and say 'oh that's so-and-so by this group' and I'm amazed at how many of the songs I do get right," Cavins said. "That's something I am always going to treasure about my dad. He taught me a lot of those songs and artists."

Cavins described Greenwich as a musical genius.

"I would be interested to see, if she were still around today, what kind of music she would be making," she said.

This is Cavins' seventh season with the Civic Players. She has acted since she was a child and performed with the Fulton County Players until the group was put on hiatus after troupe leader Ted Denton was elected mayor of Rochester.

Cavins said part of the joy of performing for her is meeting new people who share a love for the arts.

"Leader of the Pack" also reunited Cavins with one of her first co-stars on a Civic Players stage, Robert Justice.

Justice had stepped away from the stage to start a family, but theater has been calling him back to the stage. He started coaching drama club at Logansport Junior High. Now he's co-starring as Ellie Greenwich's writing partner, Jeff Barry.

Barry went on to marry Greenwich for a short time, but Justice said Barry had a vision for what was a normal life during the 1960s, something Greenwich didn't want.

"You had 2.5 children, a white picket fence, that kind of life," Justice said. "That's what he wanted out of life more than music."

Performing again gave Justice and the other actors a break from the normal stressors in their lives, he said.

"We all have full lives outside of the show," said Justice. "We worked hard to produce something that I think has come together very well. We are on stage because we enjoy this. I think everyone who is onstage wants to be onstage because it is fun and they love it. It's a time to be goofy, be something outside of ourselves and step away from our very busy lives."

Cavins said it was great working with Justice again on the play. She was equally excited about performing with those she hadn't worked with before.

"It's been a breath of fresh air to work with these people and make new friendships," she said.

Fresh faces

The cast of "leader of the Pack" brings a unique mix of stage veterans, returning performers and newcomers, all gelling to bring the play to life.

Chris Miller has shown comedic skill from the first week of rehearsals, turning Gus Sharkey, a fictional character inspired by Phil Spector, into a slick musical prospector willing to mine talent for his own benefit. He has a vaudeville presence on stage with over-the-top line delivery and a quick improv wit when it comes to turning a stage mishap into a natural occurrence.

Offstage, he is a quiet leader — not someone who is constantly peppering his peers with motivational speeches and instruction, but someone who will give advice and help when approached for it and someone who recognizes a void and is willing to step up to fill it.

"Chris has literally been a God-send," said Stair-Spicer. "He has stepped up to the plate in a big way by stepping onto the conductor's podium to lead the orchestra because we were unable to find a replacement Music Director."

Over the course of three months, Justin Adair has gone from hiding in the background to becoming a much-needed support player who can fill a role when necessary and look out for the well-being of his fellow cast members and the crew. While his lines are limited, Adair's time on stage is frequent, and in a matter of weeks he's grown from a rookie actor to an important part of the cast. He will benefit from the experience with larger roles in the future.

"Watching Justin grow as an actor and vocalist has been absolutely grand," Stair-Spicer said. "The strides he has made over the last couple of months has me eagerly anticipating his participation in future shows."

Natalie Baldini could be the show's breakout star. She has a natural stage presence and a flair for the spotlight, but she knows her boundaries and never upstages her peers. Whether it's leading the girl group, acting as Ellie's childhood friend or any of the other various roles she occupies during the show, she tackles it with enthusiasm and has a penchant for knowing exactly the facial expression each moment calls for. If Baldini decides to continue acting it's not difficult to imagine she will be leading a production onstage one day.

"I knew she was a great actress but what I didn't know was the beautiful singing voice she had," said Sabrina Brown Click, the assistant director.

Click also had a musical surprise when she heard her own daughter sing. Emma Click surprised everyone with a powerful voice and earned the role of portraying Darlene Love in the play.

Community sing-along

Stair-Spicer hopes this weekends' audiences come prepared to sing along.

It shouldn't be difficult. Greenwich's songs are ingrained in our lives whether we know it or not.

Remember Harold Ramis and Bill Murray leading a pack of marching soldiers in a rendition of "Doo-Wah- Diddy" in the film "Stripes"? That was Greenwich and Barry.

Ever watched Darlene Love's annual performance of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on "Late Night with David Letterman"? That was Greenwich and Barry.

Generation X had "Be My Baby" in the "Dirty Dancing" opening credits. Generation Z has a "Be My Baby" dance number in Ms. Marvel, the new Marvel Comics and Disney series. That was Greenwich and Barry.

Baby Boomers grew up with the songs, but they have never left the American music canon, having been passed down to each subsequent generation like a treasured heirloom.

Stair-Spicer wants audiences to think of the performance not so much as a play but more like a concert.

And it's likely every audience member will bring their own personal experience with Ellie's music when they enter McHale this weekend.