Birdie flies; Rosie Soars in Goodspeed’s “Bye Bye Birdie”
By Brooks Appelbaum
In presenting “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Musicals has taken on an interesting challenge. How is it possible to find a fresh approach to this oldest (or oldest seeming) of musical chestnuts -- especially when goofy 1950’s nostalgia is built right into the show? Happily, director Jen Thompson and a cast of superb performers have found a way to preserve the musical’s essence while sharpening the satire just enough to give the audience a knowing wink: the kind of wink, in fact, that the title character, Conrad Birdie (modeled after Elvis Presley), would bestow on a group of screaming teenage girls.
Even before the overture, we get the sense that cleverness will rule the evening. Courtesy of Tobin Ost’s Scenic Design and Daniel Brodie’s projections, outlines of old-fashioned television sets float on the scrim, and as the opening music begins, each TV shows black and white images of 1950’s fun: dad and his son on the swings; the whole family packing into a huge blue station wagon for a summer vacation; Mom, trim and cheery, taking a pie out of the oven. Ahhh. . . the good old days. . . or not.
The plot centers around a real event from only a few years before the original show hit Broadway in 1960: Elvis Presley was drafted into the army in 1957, and despite his fans’ hysterical pleading, he manfully served for 18 months in Germany. But before he left, he gave a selected woman from the Women’s Army Corps a much-publicized “last kiss.”
The musical’s creators -- Michael Stewart, book; Charles Strouse, music; Lee Adams, lyrics; and director/choreographer Gower Champion -- posit a similar situation for a Presley-like Conrad Birdie (here played by Rhett Guter, who makes us understand what all the fuss is about, and then some). But the chosen woman becomes a teenager from the squeaky-clean Midwest, and the kiss is a stunt dreamed up by Birdie’s agent and songwriter, Albert Peterson (a sweet George Merrick), who hopes that the publicity will end his serious cash flow problem.
Albert has other problems as well: he has the overbearing, guilt-tripping mother of all mothers (a very funny Kristine Zbornik), and he has commitment-phobia to rival Nathan Detroit’s in “Guys and Dolls.” His secretary for eight years, and the woman who loves him (at first, we can’t quite see why), is a fiery, smart, ambitious beauty named Rose Alvarez (the fabulous Janet Dacal, who comes close to stealing the show). He loves her, too, but somehow he just can’t stand up to his mother’s prejudice against Rose’s Spanish last name, and to his mother’s determination to keep her smothered son to herself.
Meanwhile, in Sweet Apple, Ohio, Kim (Tristen Buettel), has just been pinned by her boyfriend, Hugo (Alex Walton) when the news of The Kiss arrives. Naturally, chaos ensues as Conrad, Rose, Albert, and his mother hit town. Will Kim leave the Conrad Birdie fan club? Will Hugo lose her forever, after the fateful kiss? Will Albert’s mother tear him from Rose for good? And, most dastardly of all, will Conrad’s depravities lead the boys and girls (but especially the girls) of Sweet Apple into midnight swims, fast cars, loop-the-loop and – GASP -- making out at the Ice House?
And what about Kim’s suffering father, the terrifically funny Warren Kelley; her patient mother, (the lovely Donna English); and her little brother, Randolph (the winning Ben Stone-Zelman) who -- at age eleven -- staunchly sides with the adults as they bemoan the kids’ impending corruption?
I’ll let you live with these cliffhangers until you see the show. However, there’s no doubt about Jenn Thomson’s sure-handed directing. She keeps the joint jumpin’ throughout the two-hour running time, and she weds nostalgia with just the right smidgen of wicked irony. One of her best choices is to use the entire house for the big numbers, so we become part of Conrad’s screaming fans and also feel the “kid’s” pulsing energy right up close.
Continuing that theme, this production gives us a chance to be swooning teenagers and addled adults simultaneously. And in Janet Dacal’s Rose, it also gives us one of the best performances in a musical so far this season. Everything’s coming up Rosie on the Goodspeed stage.
By Brooks Appelbaum
Special to the Shoreline Times