The show is nothing more (or less) than it pretends to be—comparable to Menopause, The Musical or Food Fight or even Forever Plaid—any of those loosely plotted excuses to string familiar popular songs together that have long runs at Westport. Beehive itself falls in that genre. It was first mounted in 1985 off Broadway (created by Larry Gallagher), eventually made it to the big stage, and has been knocking around to “delighted audiences” (according to its website) ever since. So, on one level, it’s a good time.
But do you think I’d stop there? Of course not; that would be way too easy. While Beehive is slick and the music is comfortingly familiar, it’s just a revue. There are a few serious moments and thoughtful readings of “issue songs” like “Society’s Child,” the then 17-year-old Janis Ian’s plaint about interracial dating; “I Can Never Go Home Again” (resisting parental authority); and three by Janis Joplin, which whether they were serious or not, always sounded like it. Lauren Dragon who has performed Love, Janis twice was probably the audience favorite of the night, judging from their reaction to her songs and at the curtain call.
Lisa Estridge is the narrator who guides us through these periods and movements, and the songs aren’t always in chronological order, which seemed to confuse some people behind me. Rather, the numbers are often arranged thematically; so for example, “Downtown” follows the “The Beat Goes On.” I enjoyed Lisa’s interpretation of the latter, which she interrupted by talking about 1963 which witnessed President Kennedy’s assassination, the on-going Civil Rights movement, and other social upheavals. The piece concludes that this was the time that young people of the era lost their innocence, which leads me to my main objection to the show: the lack of respect shown the earlier music.
There is a mythology about “girl groups” that took hold at some point and lingers today. This was not all bubblegum and silly dances. It had to do with girls coming into womanhood to songs sung by, and in many cases written or co-written, by women not much older than themselves. The teenaged Carole King is credited with “Will You Still [sic] Love Me Tomorrow,” a song about a girl wondering if her boyfriend will still care about her after she’s had sex with him. The Shirelles first recorded it in 1960, when King (whose husband Gerry Goffin wrote the lyrics) was 20 and already had two children. The couple knew whereof they spoke.
The teenage anthems sung by Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, and most significantly Lesley Gore (who came out in 2005; better late than never, I guess) are mashed up in a little storyline about the “party” where “Judy left with Johnny” (Gore’s “It’s My Party”). She’s given “advice” by “Brenda” (a nicely belted out “I’m Sorry”) by Kristin Maloney, who then exhorts her to cheer up (“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”) and is intruded upon by “Annette Funicello” in a humorous get-up including Mouseketeer ears, a pointy bra, and a photo of Frankie Avalon (“I Dream About Frankie.”). Lisa sings “She’s a Fool,” then wants to know what caused Johnny to get so angry, at which time, Jessica Waxman as Gore launches into a full-throated rendition of “You Don’t Own Me,” a song that deserves more than being treated as a bridge before “It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry.”
St. Louis loves its Motown, though, and when “The Supremes” came out (not billed as “Diana Ross and The Supremes,” which is historically accurate for the Holland-Dozier-Holland collaborations “Where Did Our Love Go,” Come See About Me,” and a snippet of “I Hear a Symphony,”) the audience was ecstatic. The songs were done well in a cover band kind of way, but the real fun was in how “Diana” had to be dragged off stage, as she kept milking the audience, reinforcing her reputation as a diva. For me, the most inspired moment of the show was “A Natural Woman” (Jessica) and “Do Right Woman” (Debra Walton) performed flawlessly, then mashed up as an Aretha-inspired finale for the two.
The sixth member of the group is Jennie Harney, another power singer, and there is some good dancing from the women representing The Harlettes. Incidentally, my already prodigious respect for Tina Turner grew, since two of the women switched off the leads on her high energy songs. “Proud Mary,” the mainstay of every wedding reception held in the past 40 years, was another crowd pleaser.
James Morgan’s funky set is lighted by Mary Jo Dondlinger to cleverly reflect both the “bright” early 60s, and for Act II, the metaphorically darker, more evocative later era. Director/choreographer Pamela Hunt draws enthusiastic performances from the cast, and musical director Michael Sebastian on keyboards provides excellent backup leading the rocking band including five musicians beside himself with local connections. Sound design is by Rusty Wandall.
It seems that this musical begs comparison with Crowns, which the Rep offered a few seasons back. In Beehive, we watch six women covering popular songs. Despite occasional glimpses of individual emotions and the thin character Lisa portrays, that’s all this show is. By contrast, Crowns’ gospel-flavored score gave us a real glimpse of six women (same number, but all African-American) and the stories both of and under the hats they proudly collect and wear to church. I was touched by its music and its soul; in Beehive, there isn’t enough substance to engage the emotions, so much as just the eyes and ears.
In the end, most of the audience members clearly had a fine time at the show. I think the only real minus for them was the rather clumsy attempts at evoking participation such as finding people to sing “The Name Game.” (I was so hoping they’d find someone named “Chuck”; possibly that’s why they only stuck their mikes in women’s faces) and bringing a few people on stage to dance. Also, I was, as I usually am, eavesdropping at intermission though, and I heard more questions: (“Do you like this?” “Are you having a good time”) than statements (“What a great show,” etc.). But, the standing ovation started with the first bow, though that has become customary for the Mainstage, so that’s not the best barometer of quality. But here, I think the applause, both loud and long, did demonstrate how much St. Louis digs Beehive.
Beehive runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through April 10, 2011. You may call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org. And word has it that if you want to go, you should make arrangements soon because tickets are going fast.
Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT