Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
If you were born before 1955, you will just love Beehive. I base this on the fact that everyone in that age group in the audience I attended with had a great time, and my friend (born in 1958) and I (born in 1957) did not get as much out of it as older folks did.
Beehive is not, as my younger son thought, a new performance art piece calling attention to the current plight of the North American Honey Bee. It is exactly what its subtitle bills it as: a 1960’s musical. Specifically, it is a revue of music written and/or performed by girl groups or solo female vocalists during that decade. Girls who were wont, at least prior to 1966, to wear their hair in the infamous Beehive Hair-Do.
I joked that they would have called Beehive Hairspray if that name hadn’t already been taken, but that’s not actually the case. Beehive predates John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray by a full three years, having had its genesis at a New York City cabaret in 1985. By 1988 its creator, Larry Gallagher, was dead. Who knows what Waters might have done if Gallagher hadn’t snagged Beehive first?
During the curtain speech C-R Productions’ Tony Rivera joked that he had had to Google Petula Clark to find out who she was. “He was born in 1972,” his partner Jim Charles told the audience, who groaned. None of them were that young, in fact I would venture to guess that my friend and I were among the younger members of the audience. And I don’t base that assumption on the number of gray hairs on anyone’s head but on the way they reacted to the music and the jokes in the show. There was a visceral reaction that I had only felt once before and that was at the concert version of Hair that Barrington Stage presented a few years back. The early Baby Boomers loved the 1960’s and still long for the youth and freedom and sense of change that it embodied. For people like me, just a few years younger, the 1960’s were a frightening time that we want to put far behind us. It is no wonder that they grew up to be the Hippies and we grew up to be the Yuppies.
Beehive is no Hair, Oh, that sentence didn’t come out right, did it? Actually Beehive is full of hair – Jerry Christakos created 46 different wigs for the production at Cohoes – but what I meant was that Beehive is no “Tribal Love Rock Musical.” Hair literally changed musical theatre. Beehive has been around for a quarter of a century and hasn’t changed a thing but it has entertained millions.
Beehive is deceptively simple fare – six talented young women perform songs written and/or made famous by girl groups and solo female vocalists during the 1960’s with some rather awkward chunks of gushy monologue about the times interspersed. The highlights of the piece are dead-on impressions of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin in the second act. Other groups and performers featured are Shirley Ellis, The Angels, The Chiffons, Patti LaBelle, The Shirelles, The Shangri Las, The Supremes, Brenda Lee, Lesley Gore, Annette Funicello, Connie Francis, Sonny and Cher, Petula Clark, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, and Aretha Franklin.
The glaringly obvious omission from that list is “Mama” Cass Elliot. Although her hit “Make Your Own Kind of Music” closes the show, she receives no special tribute, which I think is sad.
Three cast members are white – Jessica Costa, Kate Feerick and Emily Portune – two are black – Kalia Lynne and Melanie Gaskins – and one – Joanne Coleman – could easily pass as white, black, or Hispanic, but here appears with Lynne and Gaskins to round out black trios like the Supremes and the Chiffons.
All of these young women are talented singers and dancers, and I mention their race only because it struck me how very segregated music was in the 1960’s and therefore how segregated this show is in its staging. Except for the group numbers when all six performers are on stage, it is generally the white girls or the black girls.
The only bit of color blind casting happened when Lynne got to play Annette Funicello, which she did beautifully. I had just heard on the news earlier that day that Miss Funicello is gravely ill, she has battled Multiple Sclerosis for more than a decade, and seeing Lynne’s bright-eyed, mouse-eared turn reminded me of the fun Annette had brought into my life on The Mickey Mouse Club and in those dorky beach movies with Frankie Avalon.
There is also a clear distinction between the kind of music the two races sing and the way they move (or don’t) while they sing it. Here director/choreographer Tralen Doler has done a superb job of capturing the movement style of each performer and period. The term “Race Music” was used to describe the music written and performed by blacks, and white teens were discouraged from listening to it or performing it. It was considered a lewd and corrupting influence. In hindsight, “Race Music” was just plain better and it won the day hands down, but its victory was just a part of the Civil Rights Movement that dominated the 1960’s.
Cohoes has landed two members of the recent national tour of Beehive – Kate Feerick (who is called Katie on stage) and Emily Portune. Feerick gets to solo as Lesley Gore and Lulu, but Portune literally brings down the house with her fierce set as Janis Joplin at the close of the show. This is a closely studied and chillingly accurate imitation of Joplin, who was an enormous talent. She was also heavily influenced by black blues artists like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly. Here Portune performs Joplin’s version of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain as part of her set. It is fitting for Joplin to close the show since she also clearly opened the flood gates and let the waters of “Race Music” and the mainstream commingle in a new and daring way.
For the past few days I have had Me and Bobby McGee and You Don’t Own Me running through my head. Clearly, Portune’s performance had a big impact on me, but at the time I found Feerick’s Gore impression to be overdone and not at all what I remembered of her performances. But it was the songs Gore made famous that stayed with me after I left the theatre. Although she didn’t write her own material, the songs she sang really had something to say about women’s rights, and they said it in a memorable and tuneful way.
Lynne tackles Tina Turner with in the second of the show’s pitch perfect impression. Gaskins and Coleman got a work out along side her as the Ikettes (there were three of them in reality) but Ike Turner is no where to be found. I loved Lynne’s set, she poured her heart and soul into it just like Tina herself, but I felt like I was watching a tribute to the Tina Turner of today, a proud, strong woman who has survived and thrived, not the victim of abuse who performed back then.
Coleman gets to lord it over Lynne and Gaskins as Diana Ross to their Supremes, and she and Gaskins get to share some of Aretha Franklin’s hits, but I didn’t feel that the Queen of Soul got the same royal treatment as the Queen of Rock and Roll.
C-R Productions was wise to include hometown sweetheart Costa in the cast. Not only was she up to the task – she soloed nicely as Connie Francis on Where the Boys Are and as Janis Ian on Society’s Child – but the audience was glad to see her. I was too, but every time she opened her mouth to belt out a line I remembered that she was miked – they all were miked – and I felt sad that amplification had come to Cohoes. I understand why this show needed to be amplified – these were primarily studio songs that were never meant to be performed live, and the instruments of that era were amplified as well. But I hope that when “Dames at Sea” sets sail in October that the mikes will have been left back on shore.
Jason Jamerson has designed a really groovy white on white set with many levels, and Matt Fick has washed it with an authentically 1960’s rainbow of colored lights. Musical Director and pianist Ben Van Diepen and his five musicians – Cathy Sheridan on trumpet; Rick Hambright on saxophone; Mary Rodriguez on drums and percussion; Rich Hommel on guitar; and Dan Cordell on bass (which in this case means the electric bass guitar, not the bass viol) – are spread out across the levels – another reason the sound needed to be electronically mixed.
There are a LOT of lightning fast costume and wig changes, so I say Hooray for the Dressers! Also hooray for Christakos’ fabulous array of wigs, previously mentioned, and Lauren Sison’s lively costumes. I think I went to my 7th grade dance in one of those dresses...
Beehive, presented by C-R Productions, runs through August 17 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances are scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday Evenings at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m., and one Saturday Matinee at 3 p.m. on the last Saturday of each production. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family (just reassure the kids that Portune is chugging iced tea or colored water out of that Southern Comfort bottle during the Joplin set). Tickets for Beehive range from $23 to $32. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008