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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Honey of a Show

From the Jukebox Dept.: As I labor to finish a review of the musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which finishes a run at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady today, I recall another jukebox musical I visited over 20 years ago. Here’s the review, followed by a preview piece that ran the week before.


LIKE THE HAIRDO from which this show takes its title, “Beehive” has the potential to be a lot of fluff starched into an orderly-looking but ultimately silly arrangement.

It’s not. Were it marketed to sell its true strength, we probably wouldn’t be as interested. Mindless fluff sells, and the first half-hour of “Beehive” is engagingly vapid (how can it pretend to be anything else when it starts with an extended version of that excruciating novelty song, “The Name Game”?)

Over thirty songs from the 1960s are sung by the six women in the cast, who also impersonate the original singers with a consistent degree of skill.

The girl groups sequence hammers home just how insipid the woman’s point of view in music had become (how could it fail to do so after a decade of Doris Day?)

Then everything changes. Diana Ross and the Supremes emerge with a smoke-machine-enhanced medley in which still-vapid songs take on an angry edge. Dominant female personalities began making a difference.

Dominant black female personalities, that is. Over in white-girl land, the singers were still keening about boyfriend problems. A wonderful send-up of the cloying stuff sung by the likes of Brenda Lee and Connie Francis constitutes the core of “Leslie Gore’s Christmas Party,” in which a weeping Leslie (Elena Ferrante) is consoled – uselessly, ironically – by the hit songs of three similarly well-known friends (wait ‘till you see Judith Walton’s hilarious Annette Funicello).

As decade-counters know, the “60s” actually began after 1964 and continued for the next ten or so years. It’s that transition, marked by the “British Invasion” sequence, that gives “Beehive” its depth. Narrative is slight – it’s a mild reminiscence by cast member Brenda Braye – because the story really lies is in the juxtaposition of songs.

During the first half, the cast and musicians have a blast playing and singing the songs and dancing marvelously re-created dances. When the shorter second half begins, with Deborah Woodson’s astonishing turn as Tina Turner, the performances become uncanny. Beehive hairdos and the concomitant mindlessness give way to social and sexual commentary.

Carolee Carmello, who aped Connie Francis by being perky and bubbleheaded, comes back with a low-key, intense Janis Ian singing “Society’s Child.”

Then Woodson turns around and portrays Aretha Franklin with another blast of rip-roaring energy. But the climax of the show – right at the end, properly placed – is Beth Musiker’s frighteningly realistic Janis Joplin, a gale-force, melancholy reminder of a dynamo who redefined a woman’s place in song and on stage.

The six-piece band is outstanding, led by pianist George Kramer with guitarist David Malachowski sounding ‘60s licks like an old pro and strong support from trumpeter John Hines, saxophonist David Brown, drummer Roy Fantel and Graham Doig filling in everything else on synth.

Once again, director-choreographer Holdgrive has turned out a terrific-looking and -sounding show. The dancing alone packs ten years’ worth of memories into a couple of high-powered hours.

"Beehive" continues through June 2.

Directed by David Holdgrive
Cohoes Music Hall, May 10

Metroland Magazine, 16 May 1991


Beehive swarms into Cohoes

“THE ‘60S HAVE A very strong hold on our society,” observes David Holdgrive. “But all of the tributes we see and the music we hear add up to a sum that may be greater than its parts. That’s why it’s nice that ‘Beehive’ is a little different. It uses the music as a starting point to examine history. And it has fun while it’s doing so.”

Holdgrive, artistic director of Heritage Artists at the Cohoes Music Hall and director of the upcoming “Beehive” production, has an unusual relationship with that decade. Although he grew up during that time, he was busily acquainting himself with the culture of the decades before it.

“This is not music that was part of my life at that time,” he says. “I mean, you couldn’t avoid a song like ‘Downtown,’ but I didn’t know a lot of this music until a few years ago. I was a student of the music of Gershwin and Porter and Fats Waller, and my parents were listening to swing bands.”

Holdgrive parlayed that familiarity with musical theater into a career as director and choreographer, but his most significant work as a writer came, ironically, with another show that takes place in the ‘60s: “The Wonder Years,” which he helped devise and direct.

“One of the things I learned in researching that show was that the baby boom generation has a stranglehold on our culture, and will continue to do so until all of us are in our 80s.”

“Beehive” comes to the Cohoes Music Hall as a quickly-chosen replacement for another ‘60s tribute, “Forever Plaid,” which would have ended the season on a note of close harmony.

“One of the frustrating things about programming a season,” says Holdgrive, “is that people say you need to start with an up, fun show. Then you need to have an up, fun show for Christmas. Then you have to end the season with an up, fun show.

“We did intend to end this season with a show that would have a broad, popular appeal. When the rights to ‘Forever Plaid’ got pulled on us, I looked around to see what else would make sense in this slot and thought of ‘Beehive,’ which I directed at the Players’ Theatre in Columbus, Ohio, exactly a year ago. And three of the ladies who were in that production have come out here for this one.”

If Perry Como was the avatar of “Forever Plaid,” with “Beehive” it’s a wide-ranging mix of female singers including Petula Clark, Janis Joplin and Lulu.

“There’s very little book in ‘Beehive,’ but it has a narrative that continues throughout the show. It’s about the experiences of women in the ‘60s as seen through the songs that were popular then. But it’s about a wider range of experiences than just musical ones.”

Don’t look for plot, but the show includes amusing (and far-fetched) sketches. “For example, Leslie Gore’s Christmas Party, in which she’s joined by Brenda Lee, Connie Francis and Annette Funicello.”

All of the songs except two are from the ‘60s, presented chronologically. The two originals are the opening number, “Let’s Rock,” and “The Beehive Dance.”

Beth Musiker, Judith Walton and Deborah Woodson recreate their roles from Columbus; Elena Ferrante did the show in Chicago, and Albany native Carolee Carmello completes the cast.

The show opens at 8 PM tomorrow (Friday) after a preview tonight, and runs through June 2 with performances at 8 PM Thursdays and Fridays, 5 and 9 PM Saturdays and 2 and 7 PM Sundays. Tickets are priced from $14.50 to $19.50 and are available at the Cohoes Music Hall box office as well as Community Box Office outlets.

And remember: the Cohoes Music Hall elevator rises now.

Metroland Magazine, 9 May 1991

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