TBTS’ Beehive Feels Deflated

With an offering as light and breezy as the ’60s jukebox musical Beehive, it seems somewhat petty to pick apart any aspect of the production, especially one so seemingly crowd-pleasing as the current 2017 season-opener at Theatre by the Sea. Capacity houses, exuberant audience participation and crisp musical performances are something with which it’s hard to argue, so any particular criticism here seems pedantic, at best. However, when the quality of the past several TBTS seasons keeps rising to new levels, it is only fair to hold them to their current standards and conclude that Beehive is enjoyable, but gets a B- for missed opportunities and some glaring omissions in execution.

Beehive is ostensibly a journey through the 1960s, from a young woman’s perspective, and the music that both shaped and reflected the changing cultural and social climate of the decade. It’s an ensemble piece, featuring six multi-talented women, using their actual names, but playing set “characters.” A spirited, but sometimes overwhelmed, Inuka Ivaska acts as narrator, tying all of the musical vignettes together and adding exposition for those in the audience who may not know anything about the ’60s. It’s a conceit that often falls flat in this outing, especially in the first act, which spends an inordinate amount of time in a teenager’s bedroom running through Chiffons and Supremes numbers at a rapid-fire pace with little attempt at the embodiment of the original performers that we get in the second act. The idea is that the teenagers represented here are using the songs to complain about various boys and the like, but without distinct personalities, what we get is a medley of songs (including “Junkman,” “Academy Award” and “Come See About Me”) in round-robin fashion. The standout, though, is Amanda Lea Lavergne, whose quirky, yet confident performance stands out from the rest. Her command of the material, as well as her superb dancing, made her the one to watch throughout the show, particularly in the second act, where she manages to steal the spotlight from a stunning Karissa Harris’ take on Tina Turner.

This is not to say that everything fell flat, but, especially in the first half, everything feels safe and compressed, with little of the music allowed to break free. As a proposed celebration of rock ‘n’ roll music, the guitars were quiet and buried in the mix. Numbers such as “Be My Baby” were denuded of their Wall of Sound aesthetic and come across as too pristine and lacking the sexuality that simmers underneath the originals. This criticism would not be entirely fair if sound designer Kurt Bradley had made the same attempts to add reverb and open up the sound the way he does in the material for the second half. Instead, most of the early numbers come across as watered-down and safe.

Another issue here is the costuming, which is wonderfully candy-colored, radiant with hot pinks and blues, but remains static until late in the first act, where the big shift is from pants to Lesley Gore-style dresses, another choice that seems to deny any of the performers a shot at individuality. And, it needs to be noted – in a show as heavily wigged as this one, there was not a beehive hairdo to be found; this, among all things, seems the most egregious omission.

As stated, the second act opens up a lot more, with a better sound and more attempts at portraying the original singers as opposed to the recitative approach we get in Act One. “Son of a Preacher Man” gets a great reaction and oozes some of the emotion that was heretofore missing, but some odd choreography threatens to derail the number. It’s not until we get to a full-on Tina Turner and the Ikettes impression that this Beehive hits full steam. Karissa Harris delivers a powerhouse performance and, even in a recreation of Turner’s live performances of “Proud Mary,” with all of its vocal gyrations, Harris does not fall victim to some of the non-period vocal showboating that we get in other places.

The second half continues to up the ante with a showcase of Aretha Franklin numbers delivered (mostly) by Alana Cauthen, who alongside Lavernge, manages to stand out throughout the show with her own personality while capturing the spirit of the original songs. Here, Lavergne stuns again, taking over for Cauthen to sing “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and making us believe it.

The show climaxes with perhaps the largest missed opportunity when a vocally capable Merrill Peiffer gives us her Janis Joplin. While Peiffer has clearly studied Joplin’s approach carefully, she is hamstrung by an over-the-top costuming choice, which pushes her impression into caricature territory. And, left without a stage microphone to ground her, Peiffer has to resort to kicking and bumping for two numbers longer than she should have to. Even the oddly colored Southern Comfort she is eventually handed seems more like satire here than a glimpse of Joplin’s ragged, tortured beauty.

It all ends with a throwaway number (“Make Your Own Kind of Music”) that sort of sums up the themes of individuality and growth that the ’60s embodied, but really just reminds us of how lean the show feels. Again, this is not to say that Beehive is not fun; the second act alone (and Amanda Lavernge) is worth the price of admission, but, unless things have loosened up a lot since opening night, don’t expect too much more than ’60s-by-the-numbers. Good try, TBTS. We await the rest of the season eagerly.

Theatre By The Sea’s presents a heavy dose of girl power in BEEHIVE, The 60’s Musical (thru June 18). Tuesdays through Sundays. Check website for exact dates and show times. For tickets, 401-782-8587, online at theatrebythesea.com, or in person at 364 Cards Pond Road, Wakefield. Four show discount subscriptions are on sale now; call the box office for pricing and information. The 2017 Season is sponsored by WJAR – NBC 10.

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