at the Briar Street Theatre

It’s strange that an innocuous, likable entertainment like Beehive should generate the kind of sharply divided reaction that it has. And I’m not just referring to the eminent theater reviewer who carped about volume and lack of subtlety — just like my high school history teacher when the Beatles’ first record came out. No, the audiences are split too. Not that they don’t like it — this is an “audience show” if ever there was one — but despite the palpable enthusiasm I’ve detected among people who’ve seen the show, there’s been the kind of detailed debate you’d think would be reserved for a new avant-garde performance or a radical rethinking of a Shakespearean classic.

One friend, for instance, hated the first act and loved the second, because, he said, the first act had too many snatches of songs, whereas the longer numbers in the second act allowed the singers to stretch; his companion felt exactly the opposite, preferring the variety of act one. Nearly everyone has quibbled about the material (how could they leave out this and find room for that?) and the performers (who’s best onstage, who’s not as good as the record).

Well, after all, isn’t that part of rock and roll? When you think of the most intense arguments you’ve had, weren’t many of them about pop music? — who’s a better singer than who, who’s cuter, who’s more sensitive? Some of the nitpicking about Beehive just shows how well it’s achieved its goal — to evoke the spirit of 60s rock.

Featuring a cast of six women — three white, three black — Beehive traces the evolution of 60s pop from the rigidly controlled girl groups to the anarchic androgyny of Janis Joplin, and shows how it parallels the coming of age of the generation of women born in or around 1950. The singers reminisce about teaming up as girls to imitate the Shangri-Las or Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells; fantasizing about being best friends with Brenda Lee or Annette Funicello; responding in mid-adolescence to the surging of their own hormones and the soulfulness of “British Invasion” singers like Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark; experiencing adult sexual awakening to the beat of Tina Turner; and reveling in the independence and aggressiveness of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.

Now, from the plastic prettiness of the Chiffons to the glorious ugliness of Janis Joplin is quite a leap. Yet there is a common factor linking all the artists Beehive acknowledges: they’re all divas. Being a diva — whether you’re Maria Callas or Aretha Franklin — means parading your emotions at a sustained high pitch, strutting tragedy in style while implicitly rejecting sorrow through the sheer joy of singing. The key elements of divahood are the right look (whether it’s Connie Francis’s party dresses or Janis Joplin’s bell-bottoms and beads), the right moves, and the right sound — vocal power plus a distinctly stylized inflection.

Beehive is a parade of divas, and it’s right on the mark nearly every time. The band is slick and loud, and the songs’ dramatic rhythms and clarion horn melodies feel fresh and vital. (The musical direction is by Skipp Brevis, whose wife, Claudia, has contributed a couple of lively tunes to link the narration.) Leslie Dockery’s choreography is simple, tough, and tight, its precision offering a metaphor for unity without uniformity. The narration, with its “do you remember” references to Elvis, Kennedy, race riots, and Woodstock, will seem mawkish and unnecessary to some but will touch others (the woman sitting next to me on opening night instinctively clutched her husband’s hand when the topic of the Kennedy assassination came up). And J. Stanley Crowe’s outrageous wigs are a riot.

Most important, the cast is fabulous. The show’s potential for resembling an audio-animatronics display or a tacky nostalgia revue is deflected by the infectious personality each singer projects, and all of them have spectacular voices. Each has her moment to shine: I especially liked Vicki Hubly’s husky, expressive vibrato in “To Sir With Love,” Anne Gunn’s Mermanesque power on “Where the Boys Are,” Adriane Lenox’s effortless soul vocal runs on “The Name Game,” Greta Pope’s hot rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High,” Megan McDonough’s tough-talkin’ “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and — without question the hit of the evening — La Nitta Swanson’s long and intense rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman.” (Swanson’s understudy, Yvonne Gage, is equally sizzling on this number, as first-nighters learned when Gage stepped in after Swanson was stranded in an eastern snowstorm.) Just as impressive — and nearly always perfectly distinguishable, thanks to Otts Munderloh’s fine-tuned sound — are the powerful three- and six-part vocal harmonies, which give new meaning to the phrase “blast from the past.”

Like everyone else, I have my quibbles. The second act, by focusing so heavily on three unique singers (Turner, Franklin, and Joplin) fails to convey a sense of the more general presence of women in late 60s rock. Where is Laura Nyro, that great singer and prolific songwriter? Where is Grace Slick, or Mama Cass? The narration (breezily delivered by Lenox, who is first among equals in this decidedly ensemble piece) pays homage to Woodstock; so where is Joni Mitchell’s anthem of the same name? And why is John Hickey’s clever set — a huge jukebox, with the all-male band standing where the records would play — so underutilized by director Larry Gallagher? On the stage of a legitimate theater (as opposed to a cabaret, where it’s playing in New York), Beehive could use more theatrical flourish.

Not as a complaint, but as an observation, I find Beehive in retrospect more interesting for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. In celebrating women rock singers as role models, the show ignores the part men played in the whole matter — the men who wrote the songs and packaged the performers, who chose who would get airplay and who would not. There’s no mention here of the industry’s sexual politics (giving head to get ahead, as women in the business called it), nor of the fact that some of the most outwardly assertive women were, in their intertwined personal and professional lives, the most dominated by men.

Also absent are references to drug and alcohol addiction; to the ugly competitive maneuverings so cannily dramatized in Dreamgirls (but hardly limited to the Supremes); and to the racial segregation of the pop market. The black and white actresses in Beehive interact and exchange roles with a casualness that progressive-minded people could only dream about in the 60s (typical of the show’s good-humored playfulness, Greta Pope exits as a glamorous Diana Ross and reenters a few minutes later as giggly Annette Funicello, complete with pink satin mouse ears).

Beehive doesn’t soft-pedal controversy; it ignores it. And I, for one, don’t think that’s bad. Those of us who grew up in one of popular music’s most fecund periods didn’t know about our heroes’ emotional problems; we responded to their spirit, to the joyful vision of a better world, where we could be our best selves, that was offered by the singers of the 60s — especially by the women, who were allowed an emotional expressiveness that was (is) generally denied men. In not merely celebrating but validating the 60s, Beehive makes contact with some very personal areas in the hearts of its viewers, in a way that more “meaningful” plays around town can’t begin to match.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.