'Bye Bye Birdie' puts happy faces on ticket holders at Goodspeed Musicals CT

 By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

With fast-paced direction by Jenn Thompson and exuberant choreography by Patricia Wilcox, Bye Bye Birdie opens like exploding fireworks on the Fourth of July in its debut at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT.

An energetic cast and a bit of tweaking has given this new version of the 1960 Broadway hit new life at the Goodspeed Opera House on the Connecticut River. This is a mid-summer show for everyone from twelve to ninety-two, and all those in-betweeners. It especially will resonate with Elvis fans and those who remember the hysteria that his groupies elicited during his heyday.

The show begins with the superb 8-piece orchestra playing an exciting overture conducted by maestro Michael O’Flaherty. Projected on to the stage screen to accompany the music are facsimile TV sets showing scenes of American life from the late ‘50’s to the early ‘60’s, created by projection designer Daniel Brodie. The most familiar tune in the score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams is “Put on a Happy Face” that’s been recorded by everyone from Tony Bennett and James Taylor to the Supremes.

As the curtain rises, the kids from Sweet Apple, Ohio are burning up the phone lines during “The Telephone Hour” as they gossip about the ‘pinning’ and blissfully in love couple Hugo and Kim (played by Alex Walton and Tristen Buettel) who are now going steady. With many cast members singing in the aisles of the theater, the excitement is palpable within the audience. A shout-out goes to Dorcas A Leung, who plays a major teen fan of rock-singer Conrad Birdie, and has one of the best stage screams ever.

In the NYC business office of Almaelou Music, secretary Rose Alvarez (Janet Dacal), who longs to be married to agent Albert Peterson (George Merrick), sings “An English Teacher,” lamenting that Albert is wasting his life -- and hers -- in the music business. When Rose sings “instead of being a music business bum, you were going to NYU to become- an English teacher!” her fiery Latina roots are evident in her wonderful voice. In the second act, Ms. Dacal shines as both a dancer and singer as she shows us all the passion and pent-up frustration of her character in the wildly entertaining number “Spanish Rose” in which she vows to be “the toast of chi-chi Costanagno.” Ole!

With the introduction of Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter), the rock-star who is being inducted into the Army, and has traveled to the American heartland of Sweet Apple to give Kim “One Last Kiss” on national TV, the cast gives its all.

When Conrad sings “Honestly Sincere” Mr. Guter teases the audience with his sexy moves and flirtatious attitude. He goes all-out to outshine Elvis’s swivel hipped gyrations. He and the kids are even more exciting in the second act in the brilliantly choreographed “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” an exuberant scene that shows off more of Mr. Guter’s talents as a finely trained dancer.

Having seen Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway three times, in the film version (awful -- it should have been titled Bye Bye Ann Margaret), and in regional theater twice, these reviewers have concluded that the multi-talented Mr. Guter’s “Birdie” is the best interpretation of the heart-throb - ever.

Kim’s protective father, Harry MacAfee, is played by the incomparable Warren Kelley, who never misses getting show-stopping laughs with his memorable comedic interpretation of this up-tight character. And he raises that bar to new heights as Harry comes to life the moment he realizes he and the family will be on The Ed Sullivan Show. Along with Mrs. MacAfee (the delightful Donna English) and Randolph MacAfee (adorable Ben Stone-Zelman) he leads a chorus of be-robed angels in the wonderfully silly “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.” In the second act, Mr. Kelley truly hits all the marks singing “Kids,” and once again, along with Ms. English and young Mr. Stone-Zelman, he shows off his dazzling acting and comedy chops as patriarch of this middle-class do-no-wrong-and-take-no-chances Mid-West family. Michael Stewart, who wrote the book for this show, knew how to create a parody of the way America really never was.

True of many musicals, this show has a scene-stealer. No, it’s not a dog or the “kid.”

It’s actress Kristine Zbornik as Mrs. Mae Peterson. Albert calls her “Mama” because he is a spineless mamas-boy. Rose can’t warm to Mae because mama is clingy, calculating and uses endless and hilarious assaults of guilt to manipulate Albert. Mae dislikes Rose because the “Spanish tamale” wants to marry the Precious Son. Stereotypical? Oh yes! But Mae is hands-down the funniest written character in the show -- and played with such shtick by Ms. Zbornik that every line comes out with sarcastic glee.

For Mae, a song from the 1995 television presentation has been added to this stage adaptation: “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” By the time Ms. Zbornik has finished this wacky number, the audience is roaring with laughter and cheering. Brava, Mae!

When Albert realizes that his reluctance to face up to Mama has caused Rose to leave, he sings “Baby, Talk to Me.” This is Mr. Merrick’s best turn in the show, and it’s a winner because he’s accompanied by a quartet consisting of the fine actor/singer/dancers Jeremiah Ginn, Michael James, Paul Aguirre and Branch Woodman. Mr. Woodman, as owner of the tacky bar Maude’s Roadside Retreat, deserves special recognition. His portrayal of Maude is so true, so relaxed and natural, that we’re sure the young actors in this show will benefit from Mr. Woodman’s well-honed craft and experience on the stage.

The ensemble playing teens, townspeople, cops, reporters, bar flies, town officials, and mothers and fathers all deserve applause. Check out their bios and make note of your favorites in the Goodspeed Musicals playbill when you see the show.

Bye Bye Birdie features a book by Michael Stewart; music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams. Clever minimalist scenic design by Tobin Ost allows quick movement from one scene to the next with little or no wait. His banners and flags offer more of that July 4th ambience to the show. David Toser’s costumes look time appropriate with Mrs. MacAfee always dressed as though she’ll be hosting a bake sale any minute, and Mama Mae’s one outfit and ratty fur coat works with a dowdiness that’s a scream. Conrad is often seen in a James Dean classic look -- perfect for the part.

Philip Rosenberg’s lighting gives an appropriately cotton-candy look to the production. Sound Design, always true and clear is by Jay Hilton who is in his 31st season at Goodspeed. Hair and Wig Design is by Mark Adam Rampmeyer who nailed those dreadful ladies’ hairdos of the early ‘60’s. Dance Arrangements (music) are by Broadway, television and film composer/arranger David Krane. A protege of Leonard Bernstein, Mr. Krane has composed dance music and arrangements for twenty-nine Broadway musicals.

The Music Director for Bye Bye Birdie is Michael O’Flaherty who is in his 25th season as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director. F. Wade Russo is assistant music director, with orchestrations by Dan DeLange. His orchestrations can also be currently heard in the West End production of Show Boat. (This version of the riverboat show was created by director Rob Ruggiero in collaboration with Goodspeed Musicals. It’s now the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization’s official version of the show.)

Since opening night, ticket demand has grown so strong that Bye Bye Birdie has been extended through September 8, 2016. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).

Tickets are available through the Box Office (860-873-8668), which is open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org. For show highlights, exclusive photos, special events and more, visit the website and follow the fun on Facebook, Twitter @goodspeedmusicl, Instagram and  YouTube.

You’ll probably leave the theater singing “Bye Bye Birdie” along with the rest of the audience on the way to the parking lot, but first, you might go to the next door bar at the Gelston House to see if some of the cast are unwinding with a smart cocktail. After all, they, too, have got “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.”

By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle, Published on World News Network July 16, 2016. Community news via WN by donchurch.

 

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