Do Wah Diddy Illuminated

Very Little Theatre ends its 85th season paying tribute to pop legend Ellie Greenwich

Emilia Rorden, Ella Greene and Siv Serene Barnum in Leader of the Pack
Emilia Rorden, Ella Greene and Siv Serene Barnum in Leader of the Pack

Ellie Greenwich is the boss. A master songwriter, Greenwich had a hand in composing buckets of Top 40 hits, such as “Chapel of Love,” “Hanky Panky,” “Da Doo Ron Ron” and other baby-boomer jams.

Leader of the Pack is a musical review with enough dialogue slipped in to provide an endearing sketch of Greenwich’s life. The play blurs the line between song and story, attempting to tell the tale using the composer’s own music. Greenwich’s light pop music is echoed by a play that never drives too deep yet manages to illuminate her greatest hopes, both dashed and fulfilled.

Director Peg Major is no stranger to the crowd-pleasing musical extravaganza. Her decades on the Eugene theater scene have left her with a sense of what will entertain audiences. For Leader of the Pack, Major casts singers, gives them highly achievable dance numbers and unleashes their inner ham.

With breakneck pacing and a patina of bright smiles, this production goes down like an ice cream soda. While parts of the play were a little too squeaky-happy 1960s for some, the cheerful fun resonated with most.

This production is powered by the extraordinary performance of Beth Milton as Darlene Love. Her mind-blowing vocals and confidence elevate even the simplest of lyrics.

Haley Henderson is sweet as young Ellie, and grows stronger as she transitions from a star-struck girl to a successful, driven woman. While the script’s quick switch of actresses to facilitate the aging of Ellie feels awkward, Kim Fairbairn finished the play nicely as an older, wiser Greenwich.

Seeing as the play spans five decades, has 17 cast members and I don’t know how many scenes, the costumes were a monumental undertaking. There are places where costumer Paula Tendick steals the show, as with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and others where you wish there had been time for just one more fitting or a little more moustache glue.

Any woman who managed a killer career throughout the ’60s and ’70s is deserving of her own musical, but in this case it is particularly apropos. Leader of the Pack’s energy and charm are a fitting tribute to Ellie Greenwich.

Leader of the Pack runs through Aug. 16 at the Very Little Theatre; $15-$20.

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