By Geary Danihy
What was once meant to be a satire on American teen culture and the phenomenon of Rock & Roll has, over five decades, become a walk down Memory Lane, a delightful exercise in nostalgia that Goodspeed Musicals has staged with all of its professionalism and understanding of the nature of the property and its audience. Thus, Bye Bye Birdie, which recently opened at the East Haddam stage, begins with a series of TV clips from the 1950s and early 60s, which sets the proper tone for this light-hearted romp that can’t help but bring a smile to the faces of those who once swung hula-hoops around their waists or wore coonskin caps.
The premise is simple: teen idol Conrad Birdie (based on both Elvis and Conway Twitty -- “twitty” -- “birdie” – get it?) has been drafted (as Elvis once was), and to take advantage of the media hype his manager, Albert Peterson (George Merrick) and Peterson’s secretary, Rose Alvarez (Janet Dacal), come up with the idea that Conrad will give “one last kiss” to a member of Conrad’s fan club before departing. The name chosen is that of Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel), a fifteen-year-old resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio, who has just been “pinned” by Hugo Peabody (Alex Walton). What does “getting pinned” mean? Well, it doesn’t refer to wrestling (or maybe it does).
Rose, Albert and Birdie (Rhett Guter) travel to Sweet Apple, trailed by Albert’s mother, Mae (Kristine Zbornik), the ultimate doting mother who has thwarted Rose and Albert’s romance. Birdie’s arrival upsets the placid Sweet Apple lifestyle and the MacAfee household, headed by Harry MacAfee (Warren Kelley, who ably channels Paul Lynde): teens become defiant (well, they stay out late) and parents wonder what’s wrong with kids these days.
The original 1960 Broadway production garnered Tonys for Best Musical, Best Actor (Dick Van Dyke), and best direction and choreography (Gower Champion). What’s up on the stage at Goodspeed is a rethinking of the original show, with some songs dropped and others moved to different positions, plus the inclusion of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which was written for the 1963 film. Under the capable direction of Jenn Thompson, aided by choreographer Patricia Wilcox, this version of Birdie sails along with nary a hitch, with efficient scene changes and a cast that, true to Goodspeed’s heritage, leaves it all up there on the stage.
The person who accompanied me on opening night offered this criterion for whether or not a show “works”: do you think about it the next morning? Well, there are quite a few moments worthy of morning contemplation, chief among them the artfully staged “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” ensemble number, as well as Dacal’s Rose transformation into “Spanish Rose.” Then there’s Birdie’s first number, “Honestly Sincere,” which literally knocks the cast dead, and the opening “Telephone Number,” which introduces the use of the aisles as part of the stage (something Goodspeed often does). Finally, when Albert tells his mother that she can go home, that he doesn’t need her anymore, Zbornik delivers a hilarious “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” in which she commits hara-kiri, then tosses the imaginary knife at her son’s feet. However, while munching on your omelet you might pause as you remember the lyrics to such songs as “How Lovely to Be a Woman” and “One Boy” -- they’re enough to set a feminist’s teeth on edge, yet you can’t judge Birdie by today’s standards; it is of it’s time, as were Flower Drum Song (“I Enjoy Being a Girl”) and Carousel (“What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”).
No, this is not Sweeney Todd or Spring Awakening. This is an old-fashioned musical that seeks to entertain from start to finish without any heavy message (other than that teens should stay away from “loop-the-loop.”) Yes, most of the characters are stereotypes and, yes, the mores, male-female relationships and assumptions about middle-America are dated, but if you suspend your disbelief or, if you lived through the era of Sputnik and “Blue Suede Shoes,” you’ll understand, and you will also get the logic of the paean to appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Who’s Ed Sullivan? If you don’t know, ask your grandparents.
Bye Bye Birdie has been extended through Sept. 8. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.