The four offerings of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2020-21 online season, featuring audience-less productions filmed on the Millburn theater’s stage, have generally been light and upbeat, and the season is currently ending with its frothiest concoction: “Beehive: The ’60s Musical.” It will be available for streaming through June 26.
This revue of the decade’s women-sung pop music lingers a bit too long in the sweet-and-innocent, boy-meets-girl pop of the first half of the decade. Is the long “Name Game” sequence really necessary? But it does eventually get around to the more complex, more adult sounds of Aretha Franklin, Grace Slick, Dusty Springfield and others. And so it ultimately does feel more like a journey than a snapshot of a moment in time.
The turning point comes about halfway through the show, with the somber “Abraham, Martin and John,” a 1968 hit for Dion in (it’s the show’s only song, I believe, that is primarily associated with a male artist). The song is used to address the decade’s previously ignored political and social unrest.
It is immediately followed by Lesley Gore’s feminist anthem, “You Don’t Own Me.” That’s a huge leap from “Where the Boys Are,” though recorded just a few years later. (The songs of “Beehive” are arranged in semi-chronological order; you get a sense of the general drift of pop/rock tastes, through the timeline does jump around a bit.)
Isabelle McKella, one of the play’s six actresses (who are backed by an onstage, all-female band), sings with an arresting sense of purpose on “You Don’t Own Me.” Other show-stealers include Anastacia McCleskey, a dynamo on her Tina Turner songs, and Mary Kate Morrissey, whose earthy Janis Joplin dominates the play’s home stretch.
Adrianna Hicks has a warm, welcoming presence as Wanda, the character who serves as a kind of narrator, nostalgically remembering her own experiences of the decade.
Created by Larry Gallagher and featuring a few original songs in addition to the golden oldies, “Beehive” debuted at the New York nightclubs Sweetwater’s and Top of the Gate in the mid-’80s and has been presented at countless theaters, nationally and internationally, since then. It makes for surefire entertainment — you can hardly go wrong with these songs — and also slyly provides a kind of alternative pop-music history of the ’60s.
The Beatles are mentioned, but no songs of theirs are sung. Material by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Temptations and The Beach Boys is also absent. So the music of The Shirelles, The Supremes, The Ronettes and other female artists is not just a footnote in “Beehive,” but takes center stage.
Yet the revue tells the story of how music evolved in the ’60s just as effectively as if all the material came from male artists. Meanwhile, the sets and costumes effectively evoke memories of those years. So do the endless series of wigs that the actresses don, to evoke different artists or different fashion eras.
Just don’t expect a lot of drama, or any big surprises, along the way. Though the revue did end with a ’60s anthem that I had, frankly, forgotten about: Mama Cass Elliot’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” Which summed everything up as well as one song could.
“Beehive: The ’60s Musical” will be available for streaming through June 26. Visit papermill.org.
Here is the trailer:
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