By Betsy Wolfe
The Williams Street Rep has some summer fun in store for vintage music lovers in the Chicago area. Beehive, created by the late Larry Gallagher, is a 60’s musical revue dedicated to pop music made famous by female artists.
The Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake, a historic 792-seat venue, is welcoming and beautiful, with all the charm of the 1920’s combined with modern appeal and convenience. The July 10 opening treated its appreciative audience with an introductory music set masterfully executed by a talented rock band, conducted by Linda Madonia, which was housed on the central upper level of a visually stunning set.
Being visible onstage, the band functioned as a character in the ensemble, even interacting with the actors in various bits. This added greatly to the joy of the evening, especially since the extreme talent in the band was clearly evident; standouts being Andy Schlinder on Tenor sax, Eric Justen on guitar and drummer Joey Zymonas. Schlinder and Justen nailed smokin’ solo lines throughout the evening, while Zymonas’s constant joy and exuberance infected the entire group, especially as the evening progressed into the second act.
It’s clear Director Mark Mahallak loves this show, this era and music, and he faithfully created the artistic atmosphere and vision of the progressing decade onstage. Mahallak, also known as an accomplished choreographer, was the perfect director to bring dances such as the Pony, Twist, Monkey, Jerk, Mashed Potato, and the Swim to life with actors born decades after the era.
The venue has a very high proscenium which the Williams Street Rep is good at using for visual impact in its typical multilevel sets. For Beehive, Set Designer William Schmiel created a large square structure reminiscent of the iconic Hollywood Squares game show set, but decorated in a graphic multicolored blocked design a la the Partridge Family bus. Across the top, the word BEEHIVE glows in red neon cursive, and the general look of the stage is impressive.
Beehive boasts a compliment of 40 songs, mostly vintage with a few narrative originals sprinkled in. There is no real cohesive story plot in the bones of the script, however the songs are presented with vignettes intentionally created to use the actual actresses, along with their true first names, to showcase specific periods of music within the era. The actresses take on the persona of these pop icons, as opposed to portraying a fictional stage character singing a song utilized in a story line. This vehicle works well most of the time. It’s especially enjoyable when the actresses are able to nail the impersonation of said icon.
Special moments for each actress:
In the first act, Jenna Payne channels Leslie Gore with a cluster of songs surrounding the highlighted song, “It’s My Party.” Payne shows great prowess for humor, pacing and timing in the most story-like treatment of all the shows vignettes. Payne, the youngest member of the ensemble, may not have a real feel for the persona she plays, but she’s entertaining and presents extremely enjoyable, likable characters.
Pascale Trouillot sings parts of many songs from the beginning. It’s evident that she can sing, however her talent would be easier to notice if her mic isn’t turned down so low, even on her solos. (This appeared to be rectified further into the show). Toward the end of the first act, the band slides into a super cool intro which turns into “The Beat Goes On.” This band’s rendition is a revelation as to the serious “coolness” of that piece, which superseded the original Sonny and Cher version. Then the lights come up on the vocalist, Trouillot, who finally gets to show off a bit. She literally owns the song.
The second act opens to a rousing Tina Turner set, adeptly shimmied to by Kaela West. An actress with obvious talent, West stands out less in the first act, however, she flaunts a feisty fun vocal that captures the original’s energy. She also has a commanding presence which was most effective when farther downstage near the audience.
Also less notable in the first act, Tina Naponelli comes into her own, wowing with her second act rendition of Janis Joplin. Naponelli definitely has the look and feel of the Woodstock Festival artist, her voice coming close to the original. The only way she might be more exact would be to smoke a pack a day for a month and scream a bit more. With her wry smile and physical mannerisms, it’s fair to say nobody missed the screaming.
Trouillot and Gina Carlson each perform second act versions of Aretha Franklin, consummating the R&B song cluster in a glorious duet mash-up of “Do Right Woman,” “A Natural Woman” and “RESPECT.” The duet is a major highlight of the show, that on opening night brought some patrons to their feet. Trouillot, more reserved early on, clearly holds her own, finally freeing her vocal chops. Carlson’s stage presence powers through every single time she enters the stage, from beginning to end. Her marvelous smile lends much to her charisma. Carlson can certainly sing.
The overall standout actress in Beehive is Sarah Jordan. Performing as versions of Brenda Lee and Annette Funicello in Act 1, Jordan has it all covered from the look, the humor, comic timing and stage presence. Onstage, Jordan presents like a veteran who never drops character and makes sure to connect with the audience— be it a look, wink or her sensual, smoky come-hither voice. Her rendition of the Shangri-Las’ “I Can’t Go Home Anymore” is a showstopper, sending chills with her powerful siren on the word “Mama” at the song’s climax.
As enjoyable as this show is, there are some issues that bear noting. While beautiful and useful with the levels, the set structure also presents a few challenges. The large square contains recessed compartments which the actors stand or sit in for much of the show, particularly in the first act. The structure itself is set all the way back on the stage, so sometimes the visual line to the actors is obscured by angles in the compartments or poor lighting accommodations. The girls’ line of sight to each other is non-existent, so it’s harder for them to move together in the choreography, preventing consistent synchronization.
Another issue with having all the actors onstage at the same time, but scattered on many levels, is that when one actor is singing or talking, it isn’t always clear who it is. So by the time an audience member’s eye finds the actor, the focus shifts to another. This is particularly disorienting in the early part of the show.
More frustrating was that at times on opening night, the light cues were off, and several times, dialogue and song lines were delivered by girls in dark compartments. Perhaps a roving spotlight could have sorted all of that.
To be fair to the crew, this show has an unimaginable amount of lighting and sound cues, but the backstage talent needs to be able to execute what’s set up. On that note, Lighting Designer Steven Spera should be commended for the wonderful effects, particularly during the sections that actors present farther downstage performing in concert style, such as with the Tina Turner and Janis Joplin bits. Back lighting actors is brilliant, giving a true live concert feel. Lighting a scrim behind the band is another exciting effect.
Music Director Mike Potts should be congratulated on his wonderful band arrangements. The band numbers could stand on their own, forming an enjoyable concert night. His singers, each one owning some real degree of talent, however, never appear to go quite as far as they can or should go in the vocal development of many signature songs. Some basic vocal technique could shore up breathing issues, extended ranges and passagios, allowing these women to explode on every number and literally bring down the house. Vocals really could benefit from true vocal coaching rather than simply teaching songs and styles.
Another notable issue is the costuming. Award winning Costume Designer Patty Halijian lends mixed vision to this show. The quality and appropriateness of the wide variety of costumes is inconsistent, sometimes using generic or anachronistic looks and other times doing a fine job capturing the era and making the actresses look great. Some of the worst offenses onstage are the unflattering simple color-blocked black and white dresses in the opening. They don’t lend to a wow factor that one would expect to coordinate with such a gorgeous set and amazing band music, especially in the opening when the audience wants to be impressed on a visual level. Later, some of the actresses are subjected to matching short blue satin dresses that have no relation to the 60’s, and none of which fit equally proportioned on the actresses. Worse yet, when other actresses come out in longer pink ensembles, the fit is completely different from one girl to the next, and one dress in particular is far too tight (and not in a good way) to the point of distracting from the performance of the lead singer.
Citations should be handed out for the anachronistic use of ugly Christmas sweaters that didn’t exist until the 80’s, along with the Tina Turner trio of white 1920’s flapper dresses. While this is the costumer’s domain, the director is ultimately responsible for the oversight of his vision and ensuring all elements are true to the era. Mahallak does that for the most part with the rest of the show.
When Halijian got it right with costumes, she hit it out of the park. Standout costumes: the Funicello Mickey Mouse ensemble worn by Jordan, the stunning pale lime chiffon dress worn beautifully by Payne, the rocker jeans and fringe vest worn by Naponelli as Joplin, and the sumptuous flattering black and silver sequined gown worn by Trouillot.
Wig and hair looks are created by veteran stage and Design Artist Virginia Zymonas. There isn’t a bad hairstyle throughout the show, in fact, the later 60’s styles are especially impressive, authentically adding to the overall look of every character portrayed. (The only exception to that being the 80’s wig worn by West as Turner.) It’s curious to note, however, that with a name such as Beehive, there isn’t one true full-on Beehive sported by a single actor all night. The stage in the first act is dominated by various versions of the Bouffant. Perhaps the choices made revolved around the short change time given to create looks for specific impersonations. Regardless, having an actual Beehive onstage, at least in the very opening, could have helped the initial look and would’ve been worth the expense and effort.
All in all the Williams Street Rep version of Beehive is a fun show that entertains. Though it will appeal most to older patrons, it’s family friendly and provides uplifting moments while never seeming too long.
“Beehive” runs through August 2. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 pm; Sunday performances are at 3 pm, at the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N Williams Street, Crystal Lake. Tickets are $35.50 and available online here or by phone at 815.356.9212. For more show info, click here.