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BWW Reviews: A Big (If Slightly Context-Starved) BEEHIVE at Toby's Baltimore

We Baltimoreans tend to think of the piled-high beehive hairdo as a uniquely local adornment of “hons,” especially hons from the Tracy Turnblad era, but the musical revue Beehive, currently revived at Toby’s Baltimore, proves otherwise.  Reportedly originated in 1960 in Illinois (not in the Free State), the beehive was profiled by more than one female pop star, and many of their fans, around the world, over the ensuing decade.  In one sense this makes it the perfect emblem of a nostalgia-fest concerning 60s pop music for female singers and their fans.  Fortunately for the show, however, Beehive does not confine itself to the beehive style or the music associated with it, instead following the evolution over a decade of pop for the female voice (and hair).  The strongest material in the show comes in the second act from singers – Tina Turner, Aretha, the Janises (Ian and Joplin), and Mama Cass – who were past the “girl group” style most associated with the beehive look, even though Aretha favored a beehive on her biggest album, and singers who had nothing to do with this kind of music, for instance Astrud Gilberto, were beehiving it up with the best of them.

That Beehive, which presents about 40 songs by female singers from the 60s, treats all of the groups, singers, and songs profiled with affection should come as no surprise, of course, but that affection poses a real threat of Disney-fying its subject.  It's Disney-fied if it’s all too cute, too simple, too free of conflict.  It's easy to overgeneralize, but the real history of the featured music is full of commercial exploitation of the young artists, of tensions (sometimes creative, sometimes not) between white composers, writers, producers and agents and black singers, and of pervasive heterosexism that stifled the ability of lesbian singers (e.g. Lesley Gore, Dusty Springfield, and Janis Ian) to address issues that must have been centrally significant for them.  You won’t get a whiff of any of that from this show. 

There is a little bit of treatment, in the first act’s framing devices (a sleepover party of young fans, and a fantasy house-party of stars), of the way these songs affected the sexual and imaginative development of their young and largely female audience.  They modeled a kind of swoony, langorous, and lachrymose approach to dating and romance.  It has to be done now in a jokey way, but the fact is, lots of young hearts beat faster in dead earnest to some of this stuff.  It definitely proposed to a generation of young adolescents a set of rules for how the game of love was to be played.

Why would it be useful to showcase these songs with a little more context?  We oldsters will know, without being told, that this whole business was more than just catchy melodies and a set of tropes about relations between the sexes that now seems comically exaggerated, and dreadfully outdated to boot.  But younger viewers will not know this; it will at best seem slightly weird and loopy.  Wasn’t grandma cute? might be the reaction of the younger viewer.  No, grandma was not cute; grandma was trying to make sense of life, and these songs were part of that dialogue.   Maybe they weren't very enlightened, but they had a lot to do with how people thought.  These songs were also great pop art, and not merely some kind of campy display whose initial listeners were in on the joke.  Still, younger viewers might think that in light of the way the earlier material was presented in the show.

This might be the reaction, at least until about two-thirds of the way through the first act.  Then the assassination of JFK and the Civil Rights movement are mentioned as backdrop to Sonny and Cher’s The Beat Goes On.  After that point, from the point of view of the show, the songs the young women sang and listened to grew up somewhat -- became less beehivey, if you will.  The British Invasion, definitely less swoony and tear-drenched, is briefly presented, and, after the intermission, the more grownup music mentioned in the first paragraph above. 

But the sequencing is slightly deceptive.  Kennedy died, as we all know, at the end of 1963.  The beehive era, if you want to call it that, was still in progress.  The Chiffons were only halfway through their creative years; the Ronettes had barely begun; Lesley Gore’s biggest hit, You Don’t Own Me, charted a month later, and Gore charted again sixteen times after that.  And so on.  The fact is, all of these things were happening at once, and that was a big part of what made that era so thrilling musically.  (The same week in November 1968, for example, you could turn on the radio and hear new hits by both Springfield of the old school and Joplin of the new.)

These are, I hasten to admit, quibbles with the show, not with the present production, which is superb.  The six young singer/dancer/actresses who make up the cast (Debra Buonaccorsi, Maria Egler, CrystAl Freeman, Deborah Lubega, Lauren Spencer Stolzfus, and Shayla Simmons) are peppy, talented, and have limitless energy and humor.  None of them were around during the era they are responsible for resurrecting, but they seem to get it pretty well.  Two moments in the show were particularly striking: Simmons channeling Aretha on Natural Woman, and Spencer Stolzfus bringing Janis Joplin back to life with Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).  If nothing else in the show could give older audience members the shock of recognition and younger ones a sense of comprehension, these moments would have been it.

The costumes (ranging from miniskirts and go-go boots to pajamas to a Union Jack dress to Supremes diva glam to Woodstockian grunge) were beautifully done (a big improvement over the costumes at the last performance I saw at this venue).  Ray Hatch’s choreography was flawless.  And the pit band, led by Cedric Lyles, rocked.  The only soft spot was the sound system, which frequently lost the first few words of songs (though this may have been the irruption of press opening glitches).

So, with a good time guaranteed, you should go.  But this shouldn’t end up being the sum total of what you learn about the female singers and groups of the 60s.  It was a complicated and fascinating story, of which Beehive recreates only a part.

Beehive: The 60's Musical, created by Larry Gallagher, directed by Kevin Stephen McAllister, January 13-February 27, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore, 5265 O’Donnell Street, Baltimore, MD 21224.  410-649-1660. .  Tickets $49.50-$55.00.  Family friendly.



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