BY SANDY STAGGS
The ladies of The Mill Town Players are having their day in Pelzer. Not only is the company concluding its fourth season with the outstanding and empowering female-centric jukebox musical “Beehive: The 60s Musical,” but in just two months, four other women will rule the stage in the community theatre staple “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”
While there are a handful of songs from the 1960s that will receive an encore in the fall show, these are two very different works. Both musicals do span 10 years as a gaggle of teenage girls grow up. Yet, while “Wonderettes” has a firmer and more grounded foundation in its narrative and characters, “Beehive,” with a flimsy book, relies on the music to tell the story of an era, and a generation.
And oh what incredible music there is to behold. And incredible performances.
Upstate actor and vocalist Celia Blitzer ditches her habit from the recent “Nunsense” at the Younts Center for a mega-teased wig and Go-Go boots as our precocious 13-year-old narrator Peggy Jones who takes us on a musical journey in “Beehive.”
This musical has been staged at both Centre Stage and the Flat Rock Playhouse in recent years but has undergone a major reworking by its creator Larry Gallagher.
“The women of rock and rock got me through the ‘60s,” Blitzer says as she and her four classmates barrel through some 30 of the greatest tunes of the decade from the great girl groups like The Supremes to revolutionaries like Janis Joplin.
Backing each other with precise and delicate harmonies of “Oooooohs” and “Ahhhhhs,” and dancing the Pony, Swim, Jerk, Watusi and Mashed Potato, and lots of upper body movement like the awesome girl groups of the 1960s, the ladies pass around the baton (okay a heart-shaped pillow) to sing solos about schoolgirl crushes.
Blitzer imparts her glorious expertise in The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day;” Ashley Wettlin (last season’s Bye Bye Birdie”) adorns eyeglasses for Leslie Gore’s classic “It’s My Party;” Beverly Clowney (“To Kill A Mockingbird”) sports a leather jack for The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back;” the sensational Merris Privette (Kim in “Bye Bye Birdie”) croons a slower, jazzy version of “Will You Still Love Me” by The Shirelles; and Tiffany Nave, a seasoned professional actor in her MTP debut, delivers a stellar rendition of “Baby, I Love You” by The Ronettes.
Yes, several of the women in this show are clearly in their 30s playing teenagers, but they all pull it off, and glowingly.
But times changed quickly in the 1960s as Peggy points out. The girls are growing up to face the harsh realities and the music changes with them. The women’s rights and civil rights movements are underway, the British invasion occurs and the life-altering assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and, of course, Vietnam.
The skirts get higher and mod. Girl groups fall out of favor and women become more confident and assertive in their daily lives and in their songs.
And this new, grim outlook is reflected in the more somber, rebellious tone in the second half of the show dedicated to acts like Jefferson Starship (Privette as Grace Slick in “Somebody to Love”), Blitzer in LuLu’s “To Sir, With Love,” Wettlin’s cover of Leslie Gore’s anthem of liberation “You Don’t Own Me,” and an out-of-this-world Clowney shimmying with her Ikettes in Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” and later Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like (a Natural Woman).”
But the most ambitious scene stealer in “Beehive” is Ms. Nave, and her jaw-dropping characterization and performance of Janis Joplin at Woodstock. I was blown away and enraptured by her spot-on Janis decked out on bell bottoms and glasses. Every tune that this dexterous vocalist performed had a different timbre and subtle nuances that captured the original recordings and compositions so elegantly, with emotion and substance. “Abraham, Martin and John” brought tears to my eyes, but her Janis Joplin banter with the audience, and invoking the artist’s signature guttural rawness and bombastic wailing in “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder” and “Bobby McGee” will go down in history. Brava Tiffany Nave!
The music show go-to gal Kimberlee Ferreira directs and choreographs this fine, highly-charged show and the phenomenal music is directed by the power couple and frequent MTP collaborators Joshua and Hannah Morton.
And all of the action occurs on a gorgeous set designed by MTP found and Executive Artistic Director Will Ragland. No one, and I mean no one, can do bandstand stages like Ragland. And this one was inspired by “The Ed Sullivan Show” replete with a theme of circles, or “lollipops” as he calls them. The impeccable decorative scenic painting around the sides of the bandstand steps is based on a 1960s wallpaper pattern. And the stage is absolutely gorgeous when illuminated by Tony Penna’s complex and innovative lighting setups.
Hats off also to Katie Halstengard’s treasure trove of fashions for this production with a continuity of accessories (white belts and go-go boots) and repeating silhouettes of complimentary palettes. And she has her work cut out for her in the second act (as do the actors in many quick changes) with one stellar costume after another from a Sonny Bono vest to full-length billowy and sparkly gowns for the Aretha Franklin medley.
And though not credited in the playbill, Ms. Nave also styled around 16 wigs or more for this production.
The live Beehive band is amazing as always and features many familiar faces: Russ Chapman on bass, Robert Johnson on drums, Tim Lee on guitar, Alan Nowell on saxophone at Mckelvie Wilder at the keyboard.
“Beehive: The 60s Musical” continues Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through August 12 at the historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby Street in Pelzer. For tickets, call (864) 947-8000 or visit www.milltownplayers.org.