Watching the final production of Phoenix Theatre’s 2016/17 season is like powering up the turntable and playing your favorite all-girl sixties greatest hits live double-album, except here you get the pleasure of actually seeing those live performances for yourself.
Larry Gallagher’s Beehive the 60’s musical, directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, is not exactly a jukebox musical, even though with the exception of two songs written for the show almost everything else was heard from a jukebox at diners, coffee shops, and bowling alleys. And it’s definitely not a series of tribute performances, the kind you might see at a nightclub or at one of the local valley gambling casinos; it’s a theatrical, musical journey that takes its audience from one end of an undeniably volatile decade to the other; one where tastes in fashion, music and the overall landscape of American culture changed at regular intervals, sometimes seemingly overnight, often alarmingly.
Even though the sixties was certainly a decade of unrest that re-shaped attitudes, values, and, in some cases, even divided families, Beehive is less concerned with its serious aspects – even though it lightly touches on them in a brief narration from time to time – it’s more interested in two things: fun and partying, as reflected in the pop/rock songs of those ever-changing ten years, beginning with a musical fashion hung over from the late fifties and ending with a style no Bobby Darin fan could ever imagine would ever get air-play on the radio.
Performed by six talented ladies, three black, three white, backed by Alan Ruch’s outstanding band on a set that effectively looks like something you might have once seen on Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, or any prime-time TV show when celebrity variety dominated sixties television schedules, Beehive’s first half is a musical revue, while the second, shorter half is something quite different.
Once the scene is set with an original song inviting us to turn back the clock sung by the show’s engaging narrator, Teshomech Olenja, the musical dives headfirst into its party atmosphere with the 1964 Shirley Ellis nonsense number, The Name Game. The cast waste no time in stepping off the stage and walking the aisles, looking for volunteers to submit their first name so that the ensemble could create their own rhyming game, away from the original song lyrics. From Friday’s opening night audience, Larry, Kathy with a ‘K,’ and Mimi were game for submitting their names, though, amusingly, one approached audience member refused to respond or even look up. In a hilarious ad-lib from Brittney Mack, who stood there, mic in hand, she declared, “I know you’re there. I’m looking at you.” Clearly not everyone wants a moment in the spotlight.
Once the audience warm-up is done, the show really begins. Teshomech sets the scene, telling us it’s 1960, the year Elvis was released from the army and Sandra Dee became engaged to (swoon) Bobby Darin, and we’re off on a series of high-energy, back to back renditions of 1963’s My Boyfriend’s Back, sung by Ashley Stults, 1966’s Sweet Talkin’ Guy lead by Teshomech, and 1963’s One Fine Day sung by Brittney.
From there, the show gives shape to the varying changes that occurred throughout the decade, with commentary from Teshomech setting the scene, adding a little perspective to the placement of the songs. Early Motown is represented by Brittney leading the girls with three songs associated with The Supremes; Where Did Our Love Go, Come See About Me and I Hear a Symphony. The commercial genius of Motown was the creation of songs sung by black artists so distinctive in their sound that, while appealing to whites, could not be replicated by them. Artists like Fats Domino and Little Richard fell victim to bland, white-bread Pat Boone versions of their songs receiving airplay over their more soulful, fifties rock originals. Watching Brittney backed by Chanel Bragg and Teshomech performing those three numbers of The Supremes reminds you that with the Motown sound, white cover versions could never work.
Amusingly, from there, the show segues to a color-blind telling of a young girl’s fantasy, a belief that she’s close and personal friends to singers she hears on the radio, something many a teenager did, and presumably still does. In Teshomech’s case, she talks of listening to the radio in her bedroom, imagining herself in the company of best girlfriends Lesley Gore (a funny rendition of It’s My Party sung by Alyssa Chiarello), Brenda Lee (Ashley), Annette Funicello (Brittney, complete with Mickey Mouse ears) and Connie Francis (again, Alyssa).
The British invasion is represented by Ashley’s mini-skirted Petula Clark, Katie Hart’s red-wigged Lulu and Alyssa’s big-haired with flips Dusty Springfield. Springfield may be London-born, but her singing voice was husky and soulful, and her most popular hits were American written. Lulu’s Scottish brogue was Americanized when singing, and Petula Clark’s southern Surrey origins have nothing to do with singing about Downtown, an American-only expression of a city area, nor advising an ex-lover not to sleep in the subway – the American underground transit system, not the English pedestrian underpass.
All three Phoenix theatre cast members nicely convey the essence of Lulu, Dusty and Pet, though when Ashley performs Petula Clark, she’s using Clark’s clipped speaking voice, not her singing. It might surprise American listeners to learn that British audiences actually complained that Petula Clark often sounded either too nasally French when singing My Song (not in the show), or too American when performing Downtown and Don’t Sleep in the Subway. The irony of the whole British invasion sequence, as good as it is, is that while the singers were all British born, their material and style remained heavily American influenced.
It’s then, after the intermission, where things change, and the change is abrupt. It’s not only the pop music style of the Beehive days that fade, it’s the whole sound and presentation. By the late sixties, pop/rock had evolved to such a degree that the Beehive period was almost as nostalgic a memory as it is today. Instead of a musical revue, the show delivers three mini-concerts presenting three very different style of performers who, each in their own, individual way, steal the show and practically overshadow everything you’ve seen before.
Chanel’s Aretha Franklin sings an electrifying duet with Alyssa, and Katie practically tears the roof off with her Janis Joplin. But the crowd favorite was clearly Brittney’s powerhouse Tina Turner. While she doesn’t sound like Tina (it’s not an impression, which is just as it should be) her whole being in style, movement and stance is fully emblazoned with the Tennessee queen of rock ‘n roll. Long before Turner’s nice and rough rendition of CCR’s Proud Mary concludes, the opening night audience was already applauding and cheering, and it’s no surprise; backed by the appropriately aggressive dance moves of Chanel and Teshomech, Brittney’s kick-ass Tina Turner is alone worth the price of admission. You’ll leave the theatre beaming while wondering where you hid all your old sixties singles and whether that dusty ol’ turntable in storage still works.
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography