"Beehive," the good-natured cabaret celebration that opened Wednesday night at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, is unlikely to spawn a return of the towering hairdo that gives the show its name. As coiffures go, that one sure went too far and too high, and while I don't remember thinking it at the time, it turned a generation of high school girls into unwitting coneheads.
What "Beehive" will provoke, however, is a flood of fond memories, primarily in those who came of age during the 1960s. Conceived and directed by Larry Gallagher, this bright and often mischievous revue gives us a quick overview of the pop music of that decade -- from the distaff side. Here -- reproduced with affection that doesn't necessarily exclude gentle mockery -- are the female vocalists and girl groups that helped usher a generation from the heartache of broken dates to the first prideful stirrings of women's liberation.
It's quite an arc, in retrospect. At the beginning of the decade, Lesley Gore was sobbing disconsolately (because, you may recall, "It's My Party and I'll Cry if I Want to"). At the end, Aretha Franklin was wailing "Do Right Woman" with the kind of defiance that brooked no back talk. "Beehive" takes into account both extremes, stopping along the way to pay homage to the Shirelles, the Supremes, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, among others.
The six performers, who know just what they're doing (and just whom they're aping), are backed by a smashing six-piece onstage rock 'n' roll band. While they have nostalgia on their minds, there comes a moment when "Beehive" also starts generating an exuberance all its own. If this is not a labor of love for everyone involved, I'll burn my prom pictures.
It was not just the music and attitudes that changed over the decade, but fashions as well. The costumes and wigs for "Beehive," designed by David Dille, are very nearly as delirious as some of the songs. While part of me was wondering if we really took Petula Clark seriously when she urged us in her best tea-and-crumpets accent to go "Downtown," another part of me was desperately trying to recall if my dates actually wore spangled hot pants, wide belts, pastel miniskirts and waist-length falls. (Apparently, we did. Apparently, they did.) Not the least of "Beehive's" charms is its recognition of sweet follies we once embraced.
With Rozz Morehead serving as the informal narrator -- in the course of the evening, she goes from a giggly teen-ager in polka dots, eager to marry Johnny Mathis, to a mature college graduate -- "Beehive" has a framework of sorts. A few historical dates are tossed our way, along with some simple-minded sociological observations. John F. Kennedy's assassination and Vietnam put an end to "our age of innocence," lest you didn't know, while the Beatles remade the face of pop music. Yeah, and Woodstock was a rock concert.
Mostly, though, "Beehive" is content to revel in the changing music and the histrionic gestures that went with it. The cast members, as long in talent as they are high of spirits, have a whale of a time with yesterday's melodies and mores. Moving from backup position to center stage, each gets the opportunity to score on her own, and does.
Valerie Pettiford -- chin aloft, eyelids at half mast -- is a hoot as Diana Ross, and even better as Annette Funicello, blissfully unaware that every adolescent male in America is staring at her burgeoning breasts. As Connie Francis, whose anguished songs were "based on more than just hearsay," Sherry Hursey neatly captures what passed for worldly sophistication, even though the deepest problem Francis ever entertained back then was "Where the Boys Are." And Jodi Socolof, in her best bleached Dusty Springfield wig, brings the first act to a rousing close with the tumultuous admission that "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."
The second act isn't quite the gas the first is, probably because by then the show has edged into the area of soul and blues. Some of the satirical fizz goes out of the enterprise, although Andrea Frierson does a whopping imitation of Tina Turner, growling like a tigress and posing like a pinup on a caveman's wall. Magda Nova's Janis Joplin segment screeched on too long for me, who never much appreciated that singer's raw-throated excesses to begin with. But she's part of the progression from innocence to rebellion, slumber parties to protest marches.
By the show's end, the beehive is a thing of the past and the "natural woman" has made her entrance. The music, which once was all about fickle boys, is pursuing tougher, more socially relevant tangents. Still, if you ever dropped a quarter into a flashing jukebox like the one set designer John Hickey has constructed on the stage of the Kreeger to house the entertainers, I suspect you'll have a grand time at "Beehive." A-2, J-10, C-3 -- they all come up. And so do a lot of remembrances. Proust has his madeleine. We have our old 45s. Beehive. Created and directed by Larry Gallagher; musical direction, Skip Brevis; choreography, Leslie Dockery; costumes, David Dille. With Andrea Frierson, Sherry Hursey, Rozz Morehead, Magda Nova, Valerie Pettiford, Jodi Socolof. At Arena's Kreeger Theater through Aug. 24.