Lovers of The Chiffons, The Ronettes, Donna Loren and Lesley Gore, rejoice! Or, if you’ve never heard of The Chiffons and The Ronettes — or you’ve simply despised Lesley Gore for the past 50 years — have a little patience. Beehive: The ’60s Musical, Larry Gallagher’s jukebox revue, has wended its way at long last to Halton Theater. The show has kicked around for over three decades since its New York debut at the Village Gate nightclub in 1986 (the show never ran on Broadway) and my Google searches of past productions — and the original cast album on Spotify — testify to a songlist that has been frequently in flux.
You know, like a jukebox.
I’ve found accounts of the show that report a full two hours of music, compared to the current Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre production that clocked in at a shade over 79 minutes — plus a 16-minute intermission. Other reports indicate reprises of hits by the Shangri-Las, Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, Janis Ian, Sonny & Cher and Brenda Lee. Most of them opt for a different selection of hits by Janis Joplin.
But the good news is that while we endure the Beach Blanket Bingo dross of Loren, Gore & Co. throughout Act 1, there are gems we remember from The Shirelles and The Supremes — and the kooky fun of Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” — mixed in with the insufferable pap that prevails. And the 40 minutes after intermission are much improved over the 39 before. We reach a Promised Land of singles originated by Dusty Springfield, Mama Cass and Jefferson Airplane. We sojourn with the likes of Tina Turner, Janis and Aretha.
Under the lively direction of Tod Kubo, who also choreographs, Beehive sustains the same high level of artistry and polish that lifted Jekyll & Hyde earlier in the CPCC Summer season. With wig designs from Barbi Van Schaick, hair reached heights you have to expect from a musical named Beehive. Costume designers Bob Croghan and Jennifer O’Kelly, held oddly in check at the outset, break free flamboyantly after intermission, especially when Tina and Janis strut the stage.
Defying the Halton’s spacious stage, O’Neill’s scenic design strives to simulate a nightclub feel. Conspiring in the scheme, music director Amy Boger Morris and her band camp upstage, often in plain view and often under a funky Beehive logo that helps to fill in the vast expanse of drapery above them.
My apologies if you have not realized that Beehive is an all-woman show, a sort of partner to the all-male Forever Plaid, another jukebox revue that never made it to Broadway. The basic difference between the two, besides gender, is that Beehive has lost all pretenses of sporting a plot. Iris DeWitt as Wanda serves intermittently as our emcee, and the only discernable reason why the other women have character names is so they don’t have to look beyond the script when they introduce themselves in “The Name Game” as Pattie, Alison, Laura, Jasmine and Gina.
They also go out into the audience and pick out more people to play. They got me on Saturday night (Sorry, no photos or recordings were allowed).
DeWitt, who was quite the authority figure in a 2016 production of Pride and Prejudice at CPCC, turns out to be a powerful vocalist as well, particularly in “Natural Woman,” her segment in the Aretha trilogy. Caryn Crye is no less revelatory as Laura, since I’ve only seen her in dramas before, most memorably at Theatre Charlotte as Mina Harker in Dracula and as Goody Proctor in The Crucible at CPCC. She’s stretched a little too far in her Janis Joplin trilogy in “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” but her “Me and Bobby McGee” — when she sheds her Pearl fur coat and lounges in her Woodstock gladrags — is a definite highlight.
Making her Charlotte debut as Alison, Grace Bell doesn’t get much of a taste of Act 2, but she’s definitely a highlight in the early action, singing The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and bringing more to Kubo’s choreography than anyone else. Bell’s one spotlight after intermission is a dazzler, as she shares the stage with Ava Smith on Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” If you’ve seen Smith’s high-energy performances at CPCC as Frenchy in Grease or at Theatre Charlotte as Annette in Saturday Night Fever, expect more of the same now in Beehive, complementing Bell’s rock-star moves, aggressively engaging with a guy in the front row and doing a Pattie solo on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Sadly, she also draws two Lesley Gore clunkers, but that’s showbiz.
After playing second fiddle to Tyler Smith in Ragtime and Show Boat, Brittany Harrington Currie reminds us here that she also appeared in an Andrew Lloyd Webber revue at CPCC and is quite comfortable in that format. Currie reveals some truly awesome wheels in “Proud Mary” with her Tina Turner vocals and her frenetic moves. Her vocal on The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is a bright spot before we descend into Connie Francis, and her “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” keeps the Aretha heat smoldering.
Coming over to CPCC after a series of scintillating outings at Children’s Theatre, including Mary Poppins and Three Little Birds, Janeta Jackson flies under the radar for most of the evening, drawing nothing better than The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” before intermission. We get a better sampling afterwards, when Jackson leads off the Aretha set with “Chain of Fools,” but it wasn’t enough for me.
I could have said the same about the show if it were possible to restore some of the hits that are no longer available with the rights to perform Beehive. Aretha’s “Respect” and “Do Right Woman” from the cast album would top my list of restorations making it worthwhile to linger longer at Halton Theater, along with Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and her “Ball and Chain.” Unerring with their tempos, Morris and her band squeeze more than 30 tunes into the evening.
Sometimes that mitigates the irritants, and sometimes that abbreviates the pleasures.