Rock Island’s Circa ’21 Catches Buzz of ‘60s In Iconic Musical “Beehive”
Running through July 10, this infectiously entertaining salute to female pop, rock and soul singers was praised by DC Metro Theater Arts as “a big-hearted, well-accomplished, utterly tuneful joy.”
A colorful flashback to the fabulous females who unmistakably left their mark on 1960s pop music, and a spectacle that matches big voices with big hairdos, “Beehive” features nonstop hits from early-decade bubble gum classics to the explosive late-‘60s soul sound.
Paying tribute to such performers as Brenda Lee, The Supremes, Connie Francis, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Aretha Franklin, this revue takes audiences back in time to experience the music that thrilled a generation, inviting music fans to rock out with “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “One Fine Day,” “Downtown” and many more timeless classics.
“Documenting the dramatic changes that America underwent during the 1960s through more than two dozen iconic numbers, ‘Beehive’ takes its patrons on a journey through song, leaving them dancing in their seats and eager to come back for seconds,” according to a Tuesday
release from Circa ’21, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
“Beehive” director Shelley Cooper is making her Circa directing debut here, after choreographing the recent Church Basement Ladies musical, “You Smell Barn.”
The Augustana assistant professor of theatre arts has directed the musicals “Into the Woods,” “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” for the Rock Island private college, and “Big River” and “Dames at Sea” for the Mississippi Bend Players.
“I really appreciate the people I get to work with,” Cooper said this week of Circa and owner/producer Denny Hitchcock. “They really care about the good of the production. Denny
does a really good job of hiring good people first, artists second. He’s really careful about who he hires. That’s been the best experience for me – it’s so collaborative.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all about what is efficient? How are we going to solve these problems and move forward?” Cooper said. “It’s been really excellent on that. And I just feel valued and appreciated.”
“My cast and my production team have made me feel very welcome and appreciated,” she said of “Beehive.” “That’s just the culture of Circa.”
“It’s a younger cast, but I really like working with them,” Cooper said of the energetic, powerful, six-woman ensemble. “They’re really sharp; they’re kind. They all compliment one another; they’re all really supportive of each other. Every single girl gets a feature, which is great about an ensemble show. It’s not, one person’s the star. Everyone gets their moment in the sun.”
The first act of “Beehive” reflects a teenage girl sleepover, reminiscing about their favorite singers (more the first half of the ‘60s), and the second act reflects the second half of the influential decade.
“The first act, we’re looking at Diana Ross, Connie Francis, ‘It’s My Party,’ all the girl groups,” Cooper said. “The second act is where we start seeing, instead of girl groups, the individual solo artists like Lesley Gore, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner.”
“What I like about directing this show is, I feel like I’m directing two different shows at the same time,” she said.
The show addresses fashion trends, relationships, and women’s liberation, as well as iconic historic moments like the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cooper has the women embody the famous performers, and to prepare, she gave them a PowerPoint presentation on all the roles, their backgrounds and related U.S. history.
“Because the ‘60s were so important, I went through the process – I wouldn’t be sitting here as a director if it wasn’t for the 1960s and what the women did for us,” she said. “I wanted that to be clear in every single decision we made, paying homage to these women. ‘You Don’t Own Me,’ what a feminist anthem.”
Cooper (who also choreographed the dance movement) said presenting this show is a way to pay tribute to the trailblazing careers of these women, she said.
“Beehve” features lots of costume changes, with the outfits and looks designed by Circa veteran designer Greg Hiatt.
“They are constantly going off and on the stage changing,” Cooper said of the women. “It’s great, though. I worked with Greg pretty early on to find out what he was thinking for each song, so I blocked with them having time to change. That was always in the forefront of my mind before I even walked in the rehearsal room.”
“That was a big part of the rehearsal process, to make sure we were tracking the costume changes,” she said.
Veteran scenic designer Susie Holgersson also designed the “Beehive” set, and Cooper said it was really special to watch her watch the run-through, since she’s lived through much of time period shown on stage.
Longtime music director Ron May (who also worked with Cooper on “You Smell Barn”) helped the director “get in the shoes of what audiences are gonna feel,” she said. May also has done much in leading the show, since it’s filled with music.
“It’s really been a team effort,” Cooper said. “They’ve lived it; they understand,” she said of older production team members. “After the day Susie watched it, all the girls were commenting on her reactions. Yeah, that’s the reason why we’re doing this show. We’re doing it for these reactions. A number like ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ – how that number can land to someone who actually experienced it.”
Cooper feels strong affinity to the “Beehive” universe, because she grew up listening to a lot of it.
“My dad is a really big music buff,” she said. “He loves this music. I grew up listening to oldies in the car. When I looked at the score, I knew every single song; I knew who sang what.”
“A lot of the dance moves, like the Twist and the Mashed Potato, I learned from my dad at family weddings,” Cooper said, noting she did research by watching a lot of videos to make the performances authentic.
She also complimented the cast for really doing their homework on their parts.
Cooper had a great time with “You Smell Barn,” noting it was more character-driven movement.
“I really liked working with Curt (Wollan), Ron and Denny on that show. I was so grateful,” she said. “I was really grateful to work on that show before ‘Beehive.’ ‘Cause the stage is a unique shape and a unique space to be in. That was very helpful.”
“Working with Curt, who has done so many shows, it helped me to observe his process,” Cooper said of the CBL director. “I got to see how production meetings are run and the whole tech side of things.”
A cast bursting with talent
The “Beehive” cast includes four Circa ’21 veterans – Erica Bigelow (The Church Basement Ladies in “You Smell Barn”), Noel Huntley (“Kinky Boots”), Brooke Myers (“Elf: The Musical”), and Savannah Bay Strandin (“Singin’ in the Rain”) – and two performers who have appeared elsewhere in Rock Island: Ravyn Davis (Augustana College’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) and Kira Rangel (“Big River”).
In a recent interview, Myers, 27, and Bigelow, 24, expressed boundless joy and anticipation for the show. Neither has done “Beehive” before, and they loved getting to know the artists and writers behind the big hit songs.
“It’s always good, especially when you’re doing a show like this that your audience is going to recognize and know the timeframe it comes from – it’s helpful to connect it to an icon that they know,” Myers said. In the first act, Cooper told her to channel a Doris Day vibe, which helped, since they weren’t songs that Day sang.
“To immerse you in the time period was extremely helpful, which made it a lot easier to develop the character of Wanda, which I play,” she said. In the second act, Myers embodies Lesley Gore, who hit it big with “It’s My Party” in 1963 as a high school junior.
“To have someone to base your character off of – my character Allison has like 10 lines, but it helps to shape the personality,” Bigelow said, noting she echoes Connie Francis in the first half.
“I’ve been told by voice teachers, your voice really fits retro music, ‘60s songs,” she said, citing “One Fine Day” as an example. “That’s good to know. There are so many distinct styles that came out of the ‘60s. To have Shelley point that out,
each one of us has our own style, was really helpful.”
“I feel like in college, I was a little bit torn about who I’m supposed to be,” Bigelow (a 2019 New York University alum) said, noting when she sang from the ‘50s and ‘60s, her teachers said they really fit her.
“I wanted to be good at everything,” she recalled. “I wanted to be a good rock singer, a good belter, a good legit singer, and I think my strong suit is singing older stuff.”
“I feel like the style of singing in the ‘60s, unless you’re Janis Joplin, it’s a very easy way of singing, easy listening,” Bigelow said. “The women, a lot of them have vibrato, and using more classical style of technique. I actually studied classical music and opera before I studied this kind of stuff, so I feel like having a classical background, it helps in this style.”
She did her last two years of high school at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a small but renowned arts boarding school in northern Michigan. She studied classical music and opera there – “It changed my life,” Bigelow said. She graduated from NYU with a bachelor’s in vocal performance, specializing in
Myers also credited Greg Hiatt for making the actresses truly their characters.
“When you see Janis Joplin, when you see Lulu, when you see Aretha, like it is spot on,” she said. “It is just stunning. He went above and beyond with the wigs and costumes, and just everything.”
Gore’s December 1963 “You Don’t Own Me” (recorded at 17, and written by two men) became a theme for women’s liberation, Myers said. In the second half, Bigelow is featured as Lulu, who had a major hit with 1967’s “To Sir With Love.”
Myers studied Gore’s physical mannerisms to capture her, who is very different than her style in the first half of “Beehive.”
“When I’m Lulu, it’s the same thing – I watched her and she didn’t move very much and I was afraid it’s boring, she’s just standing at the mic,” Bigelow said. “She just moves her hands a little bit and smiles a lot, and that’s about it. I feel like after watching our icons, their iconic songs, it helped us get into their bodies.”
Her act one dances all over the place, with much more energy.
Cooper told Myers, “I don’t want to see Brooke; I don’t want to see Wanda – I want to see Lesley Gore,” the actress recalled. “Especially Lulu, Dusty Springfield and our Janis Joplin, wait ‘til you see our Janis Joplin.”
Played by Noel Huntley, “she is just amazing,” Myers said.
“I feel like they really saw something in each of us,” Bigelow said of the six performers. “The show really celebrates how unique everybody is. They’re all so different. But I feel there’s a part of me in Lulu.”
“Once we have the mics and the costumes, it’s very helpful. It puts you in that mindset,” she said. “It makes me feel at home.”
Myers said there aren’t a ton of costume changes (including four alone in the second act), but they have to be very fast.
“The nice thing but also the hard thing, it’s a small cast so there is a lot of room backstage to set up your stuff, which is awesome,” she said. “The hard part is in having hands to help you. More often than not, I’ll be off-stage changing and the girls will be on stage doing their thing. It’s a lot of having to be self-sufficient in that regard, but we also help each other out quite a bit. Erica’s my saving grace in the second act.”
“It’s just a lot of moving pieces,” Bigelow said. “We’ve got jewelry, shoes and wigs. I’ve got three different wigs. It’s so worth it.”
Getting to sing “You Don’t Own Me” is “by far my favorite part of the show,” Myers said. “It is such a powerful song; the message is so applicable to women everywhere – not only in the ‘60s, but like now. It’s just very powerful.”
Bigelow’s favorite song to do is “Where the Boys Are,” by Connie Francis. “It makes me so happy because after years of trying to be what
people wanted me to be, and casting directors always want you to be, I get to just use my voice and that’s the kind of stuff I love to sing. It makes me want to cry, to get to be myself out there and be celebrated for that.”
And watching the other girls from backstage, Bigelow said she smiles the whole time.
“Watching the Janis set is probably my favorite part,” Myers said. “Noel, she’s stunning, but her – the rawness that she brings is so on tune with the way Janis performed, and she’s such a powerhouse. It’s inspiring to watch. Honestly, everybody is, but it’s so inspiring to watch and hear all of the artistry, because it’s so varied, but amazing.”
“It’s inspiring to watch everybody play to their strengths,” Bigelow agreed. “It’s so fun to watch. We never go up to our dressing rooms during the show at all. I’m backstage for the whole thing. First, there’s not enough time, but second, I don’t want to go upstairs. I want to watch everybody.
“I feel like we could do this show for months and months,” she said. “It’s so fun, to do and watch.”
Life before and after Covid
Myers – who’s from Kansas City, Mo. – started performing at Circa in 2018 with “Mamma Mia!” (as one of Sophie’s friends), where she met Jennifer Poarch, who convinced her to audition for the Lees-McRae College summer theater “Mamma Mia” that Bigelow was in (as Sophie in 2019), but Myers couldn’t do it because of a scheduling conflict.
“Now here we are; we were supposed to be here,” Myers said, noting “Beehive” is her ninth Circa show. “I’m super stoked to be back.”
She was a lead in Circa’s “Holiday Inn” in summer 2019 and came back to do “Elf” that holiday season. She played Kathy in “Singin’ in the Rain” at Springer Opera House in Georgia in March 2020, which was shut down by Covid after the first weekend. It was revamped and done by Springer outdoors this past March, with most of the original cast, Myers said.
“I was actually very fortunate,” Myers said of most of 2020. “I got to go back to performing relatively quickly.” She worked for several months at a coffee shop in her hometown.
Myers performed at a cabaret fundraiser in Nebraska; a musical in Florida; back to Georgia for a winter musical; back home in Missouri and back to Georgia for “Singin’ in the Rain” part two, before Circa now.
“I don’t even know how some of those opportunities fell into my lap,” she said of a surprisingly busy 2020. “I’ve been extremely lucky.”
She treasured the sold-out performance of last year’s cabaret fundraiser in Kearney, Neb.
“It was really heart-warming, because theater’s one of those things, it’s easy for people to take for granted,” Myers said. “It was nice to see that people missed it as much as I did, being able to perform.”
Bigelow had a harder 2020. The perky native of Midland, Mich., performed in six shows in 2019 around the country, and was supposed to be in Circa’s “Seussical” and “Winter Wonderland” at the end of 2020, but those got canceled by Covid (they’ve both been rescheduled for late this year).
Bigelow got to do a virtual performance of a new musical “Pride & Prejudice” (written by NYU friends) last summer, and worked as a barista back home in Michigan off and on in 2020, and this past December to February.
She also connected with Circa veteran Jen Poarch at the North Carolina summer theater in 2019, in “Mamma Mia!,” where Bigelow played Sophie and Poarch was Donna.
“It’s crazy how things just end up working out,” Bigelow said, noting she loved doing her first Church Basement Ladies here this past March to May.
“It was so fun; everyone in it was so amazing,” she said. Bigelow played the author Beverly, who reminisces about her childhood and in the show, she got to play a 9-year-old and 12-year-old.
“I love playing kids, because I have very childlike energy,” she said. Of the friendly cast, she added: “There was no drama, no parties, no extra stuff.”
“Beehive” will be at Circa through July 10, with performances on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinées at 1:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $56.55 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $49.73 for the matinées.
With area favorite Ron May serving as musical director, additional members of the creative team include scenic designer Susie Holgersson, costume designer Gregory Hiatt, lighting designer Heather Hauskins, technical director Mike Turczynski, and stage manager Kendall McKasson.
Seating capacity for each performance is limited, and plated dinners will be served in lieu of the traditional buffet meals. For the safety of guests and staff, face masks must be worn whenever guests are away from their tables.
Reservations are available through the Circa ’21 ticket office at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island, or by calling 309-786-7733 ext. 2. Online reservations are not available for this show.