The difference between a musical revue and a jukebox musical is that the former pulls together a selection of already popular songs to tell a story like a traditional musical (think “Mamma Mia”), while the latter dismisses any such complications and serves up the tunes with minimal connection between them.
Perhaps “Beehive: The ’60s Musical,” Virginia Rep’s tribute to the female vocalists of the 1960s, is something of a jukebox revue; after all, its most prominent set piece is a massive jukebox that performers place oversized dimes into. Beyond this jukebox archway is a six-piece band and a jukebox menu that includes hits from Bobby Darin, Connie Frances, The Chiffons and the like. In front of this jukebox, the show’s six singers take us on a musical journey from 1960 to 1969.
The ’60s, I am told, were an important and exciting time. Aside from our nation’s founding, there’s perhaps no period of American history that’s been so poked and prodded for meaning in its time and ours. But just because this decade included the Vietnam War, social upheaval and assassinations, we can still enjoy a nostalgic trip down memory lane, right?
“Beehive’s” faint plot centers on Wanda (Jianna Hunt), who explains how these tunes carried her from her teenage years into adulthood. This is pop music as a cipher for culture at large; from the teenage angst of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” through the hitch-hiking drifter romance of “Me and Bobby McGee,” it’s a metaphor for America’s growing pains.
“Beehive” plays out like a better version of the kind of musical revue you’d see at Busch Gardens or Kings Dominion, with its sextet of singers bringing real vocal firepower and fancy footwork to their parts. While the program lists character names for each performer, they’re rarely referred to as such. In the “The Name Game,” for instance, the singers use their real names.
Directed by Leslie Owens-Harrington, the hits keep coming, running through the likes of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Be My Baby,” “My Boyfriend’s Back” and other songs that have long been pop music staples. Under Billy Dye’s music direction, Hurt, Madison Paige Buck, Mallory Keene, Nicole Baggesen, Temperance Jones and Awa Sal Secka all sing sweetly, though every hit isn’t given equal treatment.
Buck brings an assured presence and voice to “Son of a Preacher Man” and “It’s My Party.” Hurt’s portrayal of Tina Turner is electrifying, nailing both her voice and moves in “River Deep Mountain High” and “Proud Mary.” Secka’s Aretha Franklin is also powerful stuff in “Chain of Fools,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
While entertaining, Baggesen’s Grace Slick and Janis Joplin are more caricature than impression; watching her tumble around the stage in shades with a bottle of Beam in hand, it feels like you’re watching Lily Tomlin do a parody of these hard-living singers.
Owens-Harrington’s choreography, if not the most overly complicated, is impressive for the stamina needed to complete it. The cast members are moving practically anytime they’re on stage. Mercedes Schaum and Amy Bale’s jukebox proscenium and smaller set pieces work for the proceedings just fine, but Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey’s costumes have a bit of a Party City feel at times. Conversely, Kevin S. Foster II’s wigs are impressive, taking us from beehives and flipped bobs to afros and hippie hair.
“Beehive” gets about three-quarters of the way through before it finally addresses the sorrows of the ’60s. Cue a prerequisite montage of pixelated images of the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and … Abraham Lincoln? Did they confuse the 1860s with the 1960s? The inclusion of Honest Abe makes more sense when they then launch into “Abraham, Martin and John” … except they don’t include the “Abraham” verse of the song. Quickly, all this seriousness is dispatched with as they jump into Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”
One of the more curious elements of “Beehive” is that it was first performed in the 1980s, meaning that some of its reflections are incongruous with modern day. At one point, an actress says the ’60s felt like equal rights and pay for women were just around the corner. “Yeah, right,” said someone in the opening night audience.
By the close of the show’s 90 minutes, the miniskirts have given way to patchwork dresses and dashikis, and the audience has enjoyed a sanitized, nostalgic look back of that era of massive social upheaval and change. It probably goes without saying, but the show will appeal most to audience members who remember when these songs first hit the airwaves.
Leaving the theater, my friend and I, both in our mid-thirties, discussed what a similar show would look like for our generation. Flash forward a few decades and we look forward to being entertained by the likes of the “Thong Song,” “Get Low” and “Sexy and I Know It.” If nothing else, the popular music of the ’60s seems like classier fare.
Virginia Rep’s “Beehive: The ’60s Musical” plays through May 15 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., 23220. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call (804) 282-2620.