I’m no expert on pop culture, but I was a teenager in the 1960s. So the 40 or so tunes by “girl groups” and women singers that constitute Beehive are front and center in my mental jukebox. Watching the show at the Cincinnati Playhouse, I knew the words to most of the songs. It feels good to stroll down memory lane, and Beehive’s visuals with dozens of wigs and evolving outfits, from pink chiffon to mini skirts to bell bottoms and fishnet stockings, were a reminder of how music and style intermingled.
But something kept bugging me: The six actresses were not playing singers from the ’60s, they were offering caricatures. Of course, the simple Pop tunes from the early part of the decade portray “love, loss and the pain of being a teenager,” as described in a program note by director Pam Hunt (who also staged Beehive show for the Playhouse in 1993 and 2001). But these songs weren’t seen as funny by kids being overly dramatic: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was an emotion adolescents worried about, and “One Fine Day” was what we hoped for.
The songs in Act I from 1960 to 1965 are played for humor, including an extended scene involving framed by a weeping Lesley Gore (Jessica Waxman) singing “It’s My Party,” a stalwart Brenda Lee offering “I’m Sorry” (Kristin Maloney captured Lee’s vocal catches perfectly), a coy Annette Funicello (Jennie Harney, showing off her bullet bra) and a wistful Connie Francis (Maloney again).
These songs were recorded seriously. OK, I wasn’t expecting profound drama, but this production treats everything as comedy.
The second act is more satisfying, as the music is drawn from the second half of the ’60s: We see the unashamed sexuality and wild hair of Tina Turner (Debra Walton), the fierce passion of Aretha Franklin (Walton again) and the boozy flames and shaggy locks of Janis Joplin (Lauren Dragon, who performed in the Playhouse’s production of Love, Janis back in 2005). Even these numbers suffer from simplification, but the talent of the performers keeps them interesting.
Some of Beehive’s flattening derives from presenting it on the Playhouse’s mainstage. Ten and 18 years ago it was a party in the intimate Shelterhouse with 200 or so folks. In the Marx Theatre, surrounded by more than 600 people, it feels like things should something more, especially when Lisa Estridge’s narration tries to add some social weight to what were simple Pop tunes dealing with heartfelt emotions — first by crazy kids and then by awakening young women. There’s some foundation for deeper meaning, but the show tries too hard to make a lame point, especially when it ends with Mama Cass Elliott’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” offered as a kind of anthem, but which sounds pretty pat and simplistic after four songs by Dragon’s inflamed, kick-ass Janis Joplin.
There are moments when Beehive does work, thanks largely to some very talented singers. The recreation of the Supremes (Jennie Harney does a fine Diana Ross) is melodic and sophisticated. A trio of “British Invasion” girl singers works with Maloney doing “Downtown” as Petula Clark, Dragon as Lulu singing “To Sir With Love,” and Waxman handling Dusty Springfield’s breathy “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and yearning “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” An Act II mash-up of Carol King’s “A Natural Woman” and Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Man” showcased Waxman’s powerful and heartfelt voice on the former and Walton’s raise-the-rafters belt on the latter. It was Beehive’s best moment. I wish there had been a few more.
BEEHIVE, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through May 22. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.