By Karen Isaacs
Goodspeed is taking us back to 1960s with a terrific production of Bye, Bye Birdie which has been extended to Sept. 8.
Now this show by Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) will not make anyone’s list of the top ten musicals of all times, but it would make a list of the top 100 shows. It doesn’t break any new ground – except maybe for being one of the first shows to include some soft rock-style music – but it is fun and totally enjoyable. It was Strouse and Adams first Broadway show; they later wrote Applause and Golden Boy among others and Strouse also wrote Annie.
When the show opened in 1960, the plot may have seemed “ripped from the headlines.” Just two years earlier, Elvis Presley had been drafted into the US Army, leaving millions of teenage girls heartbroken.
The show focuses on Albert Peterson, a Milquetoast like character who manages (and occasionally composes songs) for the latest teen idol, Conrad Birdie, a Presley like figure. Birdie has been drafted and Peterson comes up with a way to capitalize on the event: Birdie will debut a new song just as he leaves to be inducted. Not only will he debut the song “One Last Kiss” but actually kiss the president of his fan club in a small Ohio town. Of course, complications and subplots emerge. One is Rosie, Peterson’s longstanding girlfriend (and secretary) who is tired of waiting for him to sever the apron strings from his manipulative mother and marry her. Plus there are the residents of Sweet Apple, Ohio: Kim the president of the fan club, her boyfriend Hugo, plus her exasperated father and the other parents and teenagers in the town.
Much of the show is conventional, from the exasperated father to the stereotypical smothering mother. Yet so much is fresh with this show plus director Jenn Thompson has given it such energy and an outstanding cast, that you overlook the lamer jokes, predictable plot turns and extraneous moments.
A strength of this show is the songs – even if you haven’t seen a production, and I was surprised to realize that I never had – you will recognize many of the songs including “Put on a Happy Face,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” as well as the title song and the humorous “Kids”.
This production has so many plusses, that it’s difficult to know where to start.
I’ve already mentioned the excellent direction by Jenn Thompson. Thompson is familiar
with Connecticut; she performed at Ivoryton Playhouse as a member of The River Rep for many years. But now she is an accomplished director. She exhibits a sure hand here; she understands the material and allows it to be done seriously though with an occasional wink. Both acts open with a series of projections – in the form of various typical TV screens – of familiar things of the period – Ed Sullivan, JFK, cars, kids, and more. It immediately sets the time and mood. In addition, she made use of the aisles which totally involved the audience.
Patricia Wilcox provides excellent choreography. This is a Goodspeed show that does not feature tap dancing. Instead we have lots of dances playing off the later ‘50s rock and roll idiom.
Adding to the effects are the scenic design b Tobin Ost, sound by Jay Hilton and lighting by Philip S, Rosenberg.
Costume designer David Toser not only captured the period for both the teens and the adults but also had the challenging task of making adult performers looks like 14 to 16 year-olds.
The fine production elements are matched by a fine cast.
The two standouts for me were Janet Dacal as Rosie and Rhett Guter as Birdie. I really can’t say enough about either. Dacal sings and dances up a storm as well as imbuing Rosie with a range of emotions from frustration to love to compassion. Her renditions of “An English Teacher” and “Spanish Rose” are great. Guter plays the Elvis-like Birdie without being a copy of Elvis. He projects a self-awareness and humor of his situation and the reaction people have of him. He plays with the audience deliciously. Albert Peterson is a difficult role, since he can be both weak and bland; George Merrick grows into the role. At first he blends in but you find yourself looking at him more and more. He does a terrific job with “Put on a Happy Face.”
It was terrific to see Warren Kelly (another member of The River Rep) back in Connecticut as the exasperated father played originally by Paul Lynde. He doesn’t mimic the distinctive Lynde but gives us a typical 1960s sitcom father. Donna English has the less
satisfying role of Kim’s mother. Kristine Zbornick makes Albert’s smothering mother both funny and annoying. It is a stereotype but she gives the role as much individuality as she can.
Overall the cast playing the teenagers are excellent. While not in their teens many are quite young. I especially liked Alex Walton as Hugo, Kim’s boyfriend. He projected that gawkiness and uncertainty of the age.
Tristen Buettel as Kim sings and dances well, but she is given a basic problem. She and most of the teen girls are supposed to be 14 or 15; she just doesn’t look it. If they had been slightly older – may be 16 or 17 – she would have fit the role better.
Overall it was interesting that many of the cast playing the teenager girls had difficulty passing as a young teen; the young men in the cast seemed to more realistically look their parts.
You will have a good time at Bye, Bye Birdie — I certainly did – and it is a great show for young people.
Bye, Bye Birdie is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through Sept. 8. For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.