Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of BYE BYE BIRDIE at Goodspeed Musicals
Through September 8th
For anyone who wears makeup, Goodspeed Musicals should have a disclaimer: We are not responsible for running mascara, smudged eyeliner or any other damage to your eye makeup. And that’s because this wonderfully directed, creatively staged, fabulously acted, sung, and choreographed, beloved musical will have you laughing until tears are streaming down your face.
Now I have had just one prior experience with Bye Bye Birdie, and I can say it was far from up to par. In fact, it was so poor that sadly I only can remember the negatives and I never retained much of the storyline. But that’s all in the past – because after attending Birdie at Goodspeed, in the very capable hands of director Jenn Thompson, I fell in love with it as if it was the first time. It is a vibrant, buoyant, energetic, and altogether captivating piece of musical theatre that you don’t have to go to the Big Apple to see – this dynamic production instead will instantly transport you to Sweet Apple (Ohio) where you can unashamedly chair dance through the entire two-plus hours.
Based upon the real-life hubbub which ensued following Elvis Presley’s 1957 army draft letter, the Tony Award-winning Bye Bye Birdie, with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Lee Adams, introduces his doppelganger, Conrad Birdie, who’s in a similar pickle – so for his last big hurrah, he’s going to rock and roll his way into the hearts of the residents of small town Sweet Apple, Ohio. When his agent and songwriter Albert Peterson wants to get in one final song and squeeze the last dregs of publicity out of Birdie before he goes overseas (with some heavy-duty prodding by his girlfriend/secretary Rose Alvarez) Albert composes and stages “One Last Kiss” with one last actual kiss to be delivered on The Ed Sullivan Show. And the lucky recipient of said kiss is the 15-year-old and newly-pinned president of the Sweet Apple chapter of the Conrad Birdie fan club, Kim MacAfee.
But the kiss is causing quite a ruckus, especially with Hugo Peabody, Kim’s steady, as well as with Kim’s overprotective dad, Harry. And Birdie’s mere presence in Sweet Apple has everybody’s hearts a-thumpin’ and nearly everyone in a skirt ready to plotz – overworking that damn parasympathetic nervous system, turning happy emotions into the dramatic fan frenzy of crying and fainting! Ardent devotee Ursula leads the pack alongside BFF Kim, and even the mayor’s wife is weak in the knees. When Birdie stays the night with the MacAfees, well, there’s even more madness! Toss in a ton of melodramatic snark from Albert’s overbearing, meddling mother, Mae, and the entire town of Sweet Apple might as well be renamed Bad Apple, or at least Bruised Apple.
Everyone’s at each other – Rose is mad at Albert; Albert’s avoiding his kvetching mother whose constant pot-shots at his girl are adding to the toll on his relationship. Kim’s frustrated with Harry. Harry’s ready to wring Birdie’s neck and Hugo’s not far behind. And all the parents of Sweet Apple just “…don’t know what’s wrong with these [their] kids today!” (from the number “Kids”).
Bye Bye Birdie is a satirical, cheeky, hilarious ride down 1950s memory lane where you don’t need an Edsel or a T-Bird to get you there. What makes this show so spectacular is its utterly stellar cast. George Merrick was a fantastic Albert Peterson – the high-strung mama’s boy who’s trying to please everyone from his girlfriend Rosie, to his star client Conrad Birdie, to his over-the-top mother – and it seems he never can win. Merrick’s comedic timing is impeccable as is his singing. His other half, Rosie, played by Janet Dacal is his strong and fiery complement who’s endured more than any gal should have to, after all, she’s just looking for a gold ring and to settle down with “An English Teacher” – the very best job she knows Albert should have. Dacal’s a triple threat – and she throws in a fabulously spicy Spanish flair in her Act 2 rendition of “Spanish Rose.”
Rhett Ghuter as the charismatic, hip-shaking Birdie is flat-out phenomenal. He embodies the role as if it were made for him. He balances the fine line between bringing us some of the smooth and smoldering Elvis signature moves, without becoming too flamboyant. His character is both desirable and undesirable at the same time, and he completely nails “Honestly Sincere” — FYI, that’s the time to get out those makeup wipes! Of course his rock star affectations do wonders on young Kim MacAfee, played to perfection by Tristen Buettel. Buettel is the spirited All-American girl whose bubbly persona ups the energy quotient in the room and takes it through the roof. And as the first of the foils to Birdie and Kim’s stunt, Warren Kelley is sidesplittingly hysterical as befuddled Dad Harry MacAfee. He plays both the straight man and the comic role with verve. The second of the foils, Hugo Peabody played by Alex Walton, is wonderful as the frustrated boyfriend who’s nearly left in the rock-and-roll dust.
Kristine Zbornik defines the term scene-stealer (said with the sincerest affection) as her Mrs. Mae Peterson is one of the funniest characterizations I’ve yet to see. She can send her son around the globe and back on a single guilt trip and be completely shameless about it – and my sides literally ached after her “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Not to mention she rocks the plastic rain hood like nobody’s business. Donna English plays the classic 1950s housewife to a “T” as Doris MacAfee. Ben Stone-Zelman is the terrific little brother, Randolph MacAfee, as the bespectacled, goodie-two-shoes who works hard to make his presence known. Dorcas Leung as Ursula Merkle has more energy in her pinky toe than most people do in their entire beings – in today’s world, most would say she’s got a touch of ADHD. She’s the ultimate Birdie fan and never afraid to say what’s on her mind.
The rest of the cast also is exceptional, including Paul Aguirre as the town’s Mayor Merkle and Marci Reid as Conrad’s more mature fan Edna Merkle. Lauren Fijol is terrific as Rose’s wannabe replacement, Gloria Rasputin (and she does a mean split). Branch Woodman is fantastic as Maude, as is Jake Swain as Harvey Johnson, the boy who’s desperate for a date – who along with the entire teen cast is terrific in “The Telephone Hour.” The rest of the teens, Brittany Nicholas as Alice, Hannah Bradley as Margie, Emily Applebaum as Nancy, Kristen Hoagland as Helen, Logan Scott Mitchell as Karl, Eddie Olmo II as Freddie, and Michael James as Roger, are pure delight. With no small roles, the marvelous ensemble doubling in multiple roles includes: Aguirre, Applebaum, Bradley, Fijol, Jeremiah Ginn, Hoagland, James, Mitchell, Nicholas, Olmo II, Reid, Swain, and Woodman (Swings are Austen Danielle Bohmer and Michal Kolaczkowski).
The scenic design as well as the use of multi-media components was outstanding – and I especially loved the movie and TV clips before opening and intermission curtains – huge shout-outs to Tobin Ost for scenic design and Daniel Brodie for projection. With a terrific job done by all, mentions also to David Toser for wonderful period costume design; Philip S. Rosenberg for very creative lighting design; Jay Hilton for Sound design, Mark Adam Rampmeyer for wig and hair design; Michael O’Flaherty for musical direction, F. Wade Russo as assistant, and orchestrations by Dan DeLange; Patricia Wilcox for lively and energetic choreography with dance arrangements by David Krane.
Bye Bye Birdie delivers on so many fronts. Thompson pulled out all the stops with her unparalleled directing chops, and I’m always thrilled when characters make use of the aisles, which always adds to the fun. It was an engaging, light-hearted, family-friendly production, wonderful for all ages. Goodspeed itself is a historical landmark set on the banks of the picturesque Connecticut River – this was our first visit and we cannot wait to come back (the next time we’ll bring a picnic!)
Bye Bye Birdie (BBB) was a 1960 Tony Award-winning show with book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse. It was inspired by the real life events of Elvis Presley being drafted into the army at the peak of his career. I am compelled to disclose that I am and have always been a HUGE Elvis fan. Although Elvis in his heyday was before my time (slightly), while all of my friends were rocking to the British invasion of the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, etc., I was watching Elvis movies on a double bill at the Kimball Theatre in Yonkers, NY and buying his 45s at Woolworth (yes Woolworth sold records). Obviously, BBB holds a special place in my heart.
So BBB was an homage to as well as a jab at the whole Elvis draft scenario. The play is about the Elvis-like persona, Conrad Birdie, getting drafted and the chaos among his female fans that ensues. Conrad’s agent, Albert Petersen, is devastated. His girlfriend and wannabe wife, Rosie Alvarez, comes up with an idea to have Conrad give a good-bye kiss to a teenage girl chosen at random on the famous The Ed Sullivan Show. It all becomes easier said than done as an interfering and doting mother, a jealous boyfriend, and a persnickety father get in the way and threaten to thwart the entire endeavor.
I had seen many BAD high school and community theatre productions of the play growing up. So my only real point of reference was the iconic film starring Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Ann Margret, Jesse Pearson, Maureen Stapleton, Paul Lynde, and Bobby Rydell. I thought that the film would remain for me the standard of comparison—
—until I had the pleasure of seeing Goodspeed’s production of BBB. It was, in a word, electrifying. The direction by Jenn Thompson (whom we had gushed over in The Call) was stunningly superb – she really outdid herself this time. No anti-heinie itch cream needed for this show – it flew by leaving the audience hungering for more gyrations and pelvis thrusting.
To pull off such a coup, Ms. Thompson assembled a talented, experienced cast. I must begin with the casting of Conrad Birdie, the “Elvis” character. While I liked Jesse Pearson in the film, I always thought his portrayal was campy and a caricature of the real Elvis. Indeed, he was not that far removed from the plethora of Elvis impersonators I’ve seen over the years. I am thrilled to say that Rhett Guter made Conrad Birdie his own. He was knock-down, drag-out wonderful as the self-involved gyrating rocker. He killed it in the “Honestly Sincere” musical number. He had another show-stopping moment in “A Lot of Livin’ to do.” Veteran Broadway actor, George Merrick, was wonderful as the somewhat spineless agent (there’s an oxymoron) Albert Petersen. Following in Dick Van Dyke’s shoes was inevitably a difficult task for any actor, but Mr. Merrick proved that he filled them nicely and, like Rhett Guter, made his character his own. Serving as the perfect foil to Albert’s character, was Janet Dacal’s portrayal of the spunky Spanish Rosie Alvarez. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the non-Spanish, dyed, jet-black hair portrayal of Rosie by Janet Leigh in the film. Here there is no such issue as Ms. Dacal perfectly fits the bill. Her “Spanish Rose” number oozes Latin ambience. Tristen Buettel was spot-on as Kim MacAfee, the lucky teen chosen to kiss Conrad good-bye. Like, Mr. Merrick, she had some tough shoes to fill inasmuch as Ann Margret played the blossoming teen in the film version. Of course, Ann Margret already had blossomed by the time she played the part (by about seven years’ worth), yet her performance catapulted her to stardom. We wish the same for Ms. Buettel, as she was really excellent in the role and brought a freshness and vivaciousness to it.
There were many scene stealers in addition to the cast members mentioned above. In fact, in many ways each member of the cast had special moments which contributed to the overall success of the show. Warren Kelly was simply wonderful (how many times have I used that adjective in this review?) as the somewhat cranky and put upon father, Mr. Harry MacAfee. With his first line, the image of Paul Lynde as the father dissipated in my head. He was funny, engaging, charming and thoroughly a delight to watch. Ditto that to Kristine Zbornik as the annoyingly over-protective and interfering mother of Albert, Mrs. Mae Peterson. Ms. Zbornik, a consummate artist, knows how to milk an audience (in a good way) for every drop of laughter. Her double-take delivery of the line “remember to wear your rubbers” (which was a throwaway line in the film) was tantamount to a sight gag and elicited rousing laughter from the audience.
Two more incredible scene stealers were the young actor Ben Stone-Zelman as Randolph MacAfee and Dorcas Leung as Ursula. Both actors were obviously old souls and proved that they could sing and act with one hand tied behind their backs. I am certain that both have bright futures on the boards ahead of them. Rounding out this terrific principal cast was Donna English as Mrs. MacAfee, who brought just the right amount of authoritative and supportive balance to the role. She was the perfect foil to Warren Kelly’s snarky portrayal. Last but not least, Alex Walton was great as the jealous boyfriend, Hugo Peabody. This was a hard role for me to see without the shadow of Bobby Rydell standing behind Mr. Walton. They actually expanded the part of Hugo for the film to highlight Mr. Rydell. I believe Bobby Rydell was an underrated singer and teen idol back in the late 50s and early 60s – and yes, Rydell High in Grease was named after him. (What can you expect from a kid from Yonkers who used to go to Wildwood, NJ in the summer and see Bobby Rydell perform?) I am happy to say that Mr. Walton did step out of Rydell’s shadow with his engaging portrayal.
As I’ve said recently in another review, the success of an epic musical like BBB depends, to a large extent, on the fluidity and viability of its ensemble. All too often, the ensemble are the unsung heroes who are not only responsible for creating a realistic atmosphere, but also for playing the small but key roles throughout the play. So props to a great ensemble including Paul Aguirre, Emily Applebaum, Hannah Bradley, Lauren Fijol, Jeremiah Ginn, Kristen Hoagland, Michael James, Logan Scott Mitchell, Brittany Nicholas, Eddie Olmo II, Marci Reid, Jake Swain and Branch Woodman (who made a great Maude!).
The choreography, courtesy of Patricia Wilcox, was tantalizingly energizing – I had to restrain myself from getting up on a chair and joining in (despite having two left feet) during the “A Lot of Livin’ to Do number. Each dance piece was show-stopping.
I’ve avoided saying if there’s only one show you should see, go to this one or that one because there are so many great pieces of theatre out there. But if there is only one version of Bye Bye Birdie that you can see, Jenn Thompson’s and Goodspeed Musicals’ version is the one!