Theater Review - Trip down Oldie Lane

Two musical revues revisit tunes from bygone era

Theatrical Outfit and ART Station both throw nostalgic theme parties with their rockin’ oldies revue shows. But neither the Outfit’s Beehive nor the Station’s Route 66 can conceal the emptiness of the revue form itself. Revues lack the characters and stories that give bona fide stage musicals their weight, and yet they seldom muster the spontaneity or connection between artist and song you find in “real” rock concerts.

Though neither revue has a plot, each traces an arc. Route 66 moves over geography, choosing tunes based on different points along the famed American highway — which, as the song says, “winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way.”

Beehive progresses through time, surveying rock ‘n’ roll girl groups from throughout the 1960s. The title creates a false impression, since it leads you to expect a show devoted to hair-sprayed, doo-wop groups such as the Shirelles. Though Beehive begins with tunes like “The Name Game” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” it moves on to explore the transformation of female-fronted pop. The cast makes gentle fun of wholesome “America’s sweethearts” like Lesley Gore, whom Wendy Melkonian portrays as a whining crybaby for “It’s My Party.”

As the decade passes, the songs focus on feminine strength more than teenage puppy love. Denitra Isler fiercely leads the cast in Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Proud Mary,” complete with the Ikettes’ vigorous, muscular back-up dancing. Isler proves Beehive’s most arresting singer and, in “Do Right Woman,” even looks a little like a young Aretha Franklin. She could lead a Tina/Aretha tribute band for a living. Rita Dolphin attempts to channel Janis Joplin with less success, but finishes up with a blistering version of “Ball and Chain.”

Both revues irritate when they make a show of being serious. In Beehive, Betty Hart gets stuck with the bland, “you’ve come a long way, baby” narration that hammers out the show’s themes. Route 66 begins with kitschy good cheer as the four actors, dressed as gas station attendants, sing the “Texaco Star Theme” and segue into Elvis-era singles. But when they break into more contemporary, “soulful” country ballads about Americana and the “mother road,” Route 66 stoops to phony sentiment.

Director Dave Thomas hinders Route 66’s momentum by putting blackouts between every song. In the interims, loudspeakers play vintage radio spots for Edsel dealerships and the like, but the humor comes at the expense of the performers’ rhythm. It’s like driving with the emergency brake on.

Both shows foster cheerful vibes in their casts. Route 66 feels like a bunch of guys on a road trip, while Beehive evokes a slumber party, especially with the all-woman, go-go-boot wearing back-up band led by Angela Motter. Route 66 will only appeal to people who are already fans of the music, while Beehive’s more lavish production, more talented singers and stronger thematic statement may sway the uninitiated.

Yet Route 66 and Beehive ultimately feel like the kind of house entertainment you’d find at a midrange hotel and casino. Can it be a coincidence that Route 66 goes through Branson, Mo.?