If you're going to go back to the 1960's, you have to go all the way, and that is exactly what writer/co-composer/lyricist William Electric Black and co-composer Valerie Ghent have done with Betty & the Belrays, a delightful, toe-tapping, finger-snapping musical about a white girl group trying to get signed to a black record label. Designer Christina Fikaris has created a colorful, eye-catching set that instantly establishes the 60's mood. The walls of this intimate theater space are adorned with paintings of bright pink lips and musical notes, while the ceiling is decorated with dozens of glittering records dangling by a string above the audience members' heads.
It is in this setting that we first meet Betty Belarosky, played by singing powerhouse Nicole Patullo. Patullo has fun with her lyrics, singing each song with conviction regardless of whether it is a playful, waddle-like-a-duck dance or a somber ballad about segregation. A recent high school graduate, Betty is at a crucial point in her life where most girls either go to work or get married. Reluctantly, she sets out to apply for the most coveted job a young girl could have at that time: telephone operator.
While standing on line to be interviewed, she meets Connie (Cara S. Liander), who is distraught over a recent breakup, and Zipgun (Vanessa Burke), a switchblade-carrying tomboy straight out of reform school. Desperate not to spend the rest of her life answering phones, Betty convinces Zipgun and Connie to abandon the interview and join her in auditioning for a girl group. Both girls are interested, until they learn the audition is for a black record label.
Because this production is family-friendly, the weighty racial issues it addresses are handled with kid gloves. Betty, Connie, and Zipgun's devotion to civil rights is not in the same category as Martin Luther King Jr.'s, but they do recognize that segregation is a serious and disturbing issue that too often goes ignored.
Betty is not even aware that segregation exists until she meets Sam the Beat (Levern Williams), a local D.J. from the other side of the tracks who opens her eyes to the ignorance surrounding her. He sends Betty and her friends to meet a talent scout for the black record label named Loretta Jones (Verna Hampton), a feisty woman who teaches the girls how to sing with soul and spirit.
Jones delivers the ultimate wake-up call, belting out an inspiring solo number, "Lord, How I Love My Ironing Board," to open the girls' eyes to the harsh realities plaguing her community. Hampton is a strong and passionate singer; as her notes go higher and the song reaches its booming climax, you can feel her righteous anger simmering beneath the humorous lyrics.
Deceiving surface value is a recurrent theme in this play, as it was during the era it examines, a time when girl groups inundated the nation with their music but never with their faces. Because of racial tensions, singers chose to keep their race a secret, fearing alienation from a huge portion of their audience if their identity was revealed.
But despite the turbulent era the story is set in, Betty & the Belrays is an undeniably upbeat production. All of the songs, even the ones about racial tensions, are set to infectious and familiar beats reminiscent of the girl group period (the Ronettes, the Shirelles) of the early '60s. Everyone seems to be having a fun time, whether it's the actors dancing in the aisles to a song about spreading peanut butter ("Go to the shelf, grab that jar. Stand on your toes if it's up too far!") or the onstage band members laughing as they play the show's silly melodies.
With energy like this, it is easy to understand Sam the Beat's advice to Betty early in her singing career. "The only thing that crosses the color line," he tells her when she first visits his studio, "is music."