Oregon Cabaret Theatre was raucous with expectation at the opening of “Beehive, the ’60s Musical” last week and rightly so, because the show is a spectacular big-hair homage to the music of the era.
Shouts and excited laughter sounded so loud that Cabaret’s Artistic Director Valerie Rachelle needed to give a five-minute warning that the show was about to begin. Moments later, four musicians and six women stepped onto the stage, and the audience was transfixed and transformed, transported to 1960.
There’s a clear narrative to the show that is reflected in the two-minute musical selections, dance moves and dress. What starts in the 1960s with everything about boys becomes a wild ride toward female empowerment by 1969. The narrative may not be high-brow, but who cares when the music is so personal, when the lyrics are so familiar. It was a time when young women gained strength, found their voices, claimed their bodies and earned independence.
“Beehive,” director Lauren Blair is the best possible choice to lead the musical given her gift for choreography. Keenon Hooks does choreography duties for this show, and Blair puts dance front and center of the music as it should be — Blair’s work shows not only in the dance, but in the graceful play of hands and arms, the pounding of heels and facial expression.
The moves of the early selections are smooth and proper, lyrical as the actors sing of love, longing and loss in songs such as “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.” Desire takes precedence with “To Sir, With Love,” before turning to the larger social issues represented by “Abraham, Martin and John.” And then music and movement give way to open sexuality, mini-skirts and abandon with Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin and more.
Almost every scene in “Beehive” is standout because of the superb, powerful voices of the cast. When one was front and center wailing out the words, the others sang backup in perfect harmony. Every cast member had their moments in the spotlight, and these showgirls were also flawless in ensemble.
Tamara Daly in a red dress carried much of the dialogue; she opened the show leading with “The Name Game,” (expect audience participation) and closed it soundly with celebration, singing “Make Your Own Kind of Music.” Daly’s deep, melodious voice was splendid in “Walkin’ in the Rain” and totally rockin’ in “Beehive Dance.” I shivered when Daly sang, “Then He Kissed Me,” her arms caressing her shoulders, stroking her hips.
Carrie Lyn Brandon was the big-skirted, wasp-waist, high-heeled beauty Alison, who held the stage with earlier, more formal sets.
Patty was played by Shae Celine, costumed as a bouffant blonde bombshell of a cheerleader who made the mic her own with “Be My Baby” and later singing “You Don’t Own Me” with icy disdain. Celene must have years of modern dance training, as her prowess is clearly evident in her sets.
The poetry of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and “Never Loved a Man” echoed in the tall spaces of the theater as Rosharra Francis in the role of Laura belted out the words.
And Asha Brownie-Gordon, whom we last saw at the Cabaret dressed in overalls for “Avenue Q,” was an absolutely magnificent Tina Turner, in a slinky, fringed dress just long enough to cover her fanny. The entire ensemble was similarly costumed, fringes flying as the backup dancers shimmied and pranced.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Kristen Calvin in the role of Laura, who was wonderful throughout but was a standout Janis Joplin. Sure, Calvin doesn’t have Joplin’s ragged, hoarse voice, but she’s got Joplin’s vocal power and contagious mad energy. Calvin did Joplin just right, showing all the craziness of concerts and drugs and celebrity — and her costume suited too, with purple wire rims, that fur hat, big rings, lots of beads and embroidered bell-bottom jeans.
Calvin had that penultimate set with “Cry Baby,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” and “Bobby McGee.” By the end the audience was howling in acclaim, and when the women began that final ensemble piece, “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” the house roared even louder.
Pop music sounded endlessly during those hot ‘60s summers and everyone had a battery-powered transistor radio that played those songs of love and despair, protest and freedom. One winter I hid out with a girlfriend who had a turntable secreted in the basement, where she taught me the Mashed Potato to those scratched 45s. I was 10 that year and could only dream of love and liberation, so it was grand to experience this pop-culture version of the 1960s at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
“Beehive, the ’60s Musical” continues through March 31. Tickets are $25-$39, available at TheOregonCabaret.com, by calling 541-488-2902, or from the box office at 241 Hargadine St., in Ashland.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at email@example.com.