The 40-ish spectator in the row ahead of me at the Ambassador Theatre was being simultaneously carried away and carried back to his youth by the 1960s sounds. ``I know all those songs,'' boasted his companion. They were referring to the Ellie Greenwich ditties in ``Leader of the Pack,'' which has just had its belated Broadway opening. The musical retrospective celebrates the life and times of a rock-and-roll writing star, many of whose compositions and collaborations were identified with the ``girl group'' sound of the '60s. The sound is given its full due in Marc Shaiman's vocal arrangements for the more than 20 members that make up the score.
``Leader of the Pack'' is part cabaret floor show, part extravaganza, and part show-business biography -- all casually assembled. Its fragmentary inserts trace the ups and downs, professional and marital, of Greenwich's career, which began in Levittown, Long Island, and wound up on Broadway. But the songs are its raison d'^etre, the cause of audience cheers and applause. This is the kind of entertainment at which the opening strains of old favorites start ripples of hand clapping prompted equally by memories and anticipation.
Such songs include ``Wait 'Til My Bobby Gets Home,'' ``And Then He Kissed Me,'' ``Chapel of Love,'' ``Baby I Love You,'' and ``River Deep Mountain High.'' They resonate with the banalities and infectious catch phrases of music and lyrics that delight young fans and drive parents up the wall. One of the solidest creations of this event, however, is the finale, ``We're Gonna Make It (After All),'' a new Greenwich composition.
As Broadway musicals go, the show is brief, running only about 100 minutes without intermission. It is well performed by a cast whose principals include practiced lead singer Darlene Love, Dinah Manoff (the young Ellie Greenwich), Patrick Cassidy (Jeff Barry), Dennis Bailey (a manic, dark-spectacled record producer), and Annie Golden (herself).
At the point after which Ellie's marriage to Jeff breaks up, Miss Manoff disappears, to be replaced by Ellie Greenwich herself. Miss Greenwich proves to be a matronly bobbed-hair blonde, a show-biz den-mother type with an ingratiating personality and a voice that can stand up to solo demands or blend well in ensembles. Her informal patter includes the answer to a question that may have been bothering some people. What does ``Da Doo Ron Ron'' mean? Well, actually, nothing. But then, who can tell you the meaning of ``Hey nonny nonny''?
Apart from a bit of unnecessary vulgarity, a fleeting balletic pas de deux, and the simulated varooms of the motorbike production number, director Michael Peter's choreography sticks mostly to the bump-and-grind and body English of rock-and-rollery. The production's visual appeal lies in the disarming tackiness of Robert de Mora's costumes, Phyllis Della's elaborate and sometimes comic hairdos, and the discomatic tiers of Tony Walton's sectionally mobile setting.
So ``Leader of the Pack'' has finally arrived. It remains to be seen whether a sufficient coterie of Yuppies is prepared to pay Broadway prices for these 100 minutes of instant nostalgia.