A good production of “Bye Bye Birdie” is probably more enjoyable now than it was when it first opened on Broadway, back in 1960. The musical (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by Michael Stewart) is certainly more interesting now than it was then.
Then, it was intended as something of a spoof of the hysteria that had developed when Elvis Presley, the mid-50s rock-and-roll heart-throb, had received his draft induction notice. The thought that the hip-grinding rocker might be lost to his teeny-bopper fans for all of two years was enough to bring more than a few female pubescents to tears, if not derision.
In the musical, the reaction to the pending induction is personalized through a contest that is televised on the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night program was where Presley got his big start as a superstar, and the show was about as popular as a TV show could be in the early years of the medium.
The “winner” of the contest ends up being Kim MacAfee, who was the president of the Conrad Birdie fan club in her hometown (Sweet Apple, Ohio). When she won the contest, she had just started to go steady with Hugo Peabody, and the irritation Hugo feels for Kim’s divided affections forms a small subplot in the lightweight story.
Most of the enjoyment that led to the musical’s reception (including garnering the best new musical Tony Award in 1961) was probably due to its music, which features at least a half dozen catchy tunes that work well in the context of the retro feel of the play.
That retro feel is what makes “Birdie” far more interesting now than it was when it debuted, and the Music Circus production last week (ably directed by Glenn Casale at the Wells Fargo Pavilion) portrayed the times most effectively (big assist in that regard to the excellent costumes by Mark Koss and wigs by Jill Lane).
The Music Circus production featured a large cast that included twenty youngsters who comprised a “junior company” along with an ensemble of sixteen singers and dancers who greatly enlivened the proceedings on “The Telephone Hour” and in backing up several other songs.
The main cast featured Larry Raben as Birdie’s agent, Albert; Janine Divita as his assistant, Rosie; Nathaniel Hackmann as Birdie himself; and Mary-Pat Green as Albert’s omnipresent, overbearing mother. Also prominent were the MacAfee family members (Amanda Jane Cooper as Kim, Stuart Marland as her father, Rebecca Baxter as her mother, and Hunter Clary as her young brother), and Garett Hawe as Hugo. Of these, Mr. Hackmann and Mr. Marland provided standout performances. Ms. Green and Ms. Divita were also impressive, and the others more than held their own.
In addition to the opening “Telephone Hour,” other highlights among the songs were “How Lovely to be a Woman” (Ms. Cooper); “Put on a Happy Face” (Mr. Raben); “One Boy” (Ms. Cooper and ensemble members Maria Briggs and Ashley Anderson); “Honestly Sincere” (Mr. Hackmann, with a great series of swoons by ensemble member Kathryn Mowat Murphy throughout the song); “One Last Kiss” (Mr. Hackmann); “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” (Mr. Hackmann and Ms. Cooper); “Kids” (Mr. Marland, Ms. Baxter, and young Mr. Clary); and “Spanish Rose” (Ms. Divita).
All the singing was ably supported by musical director Dennis Castellano who conducted a fine 13-member orchestra. Choreography (of which we wish there was more) was by Randy Slovacek. (Set designs were the work of Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf, lighting was handled by Pamila Gray, and Joe Caruso, Jr. and Robert Sereno was responsible for the sound design.)
This was the first production by Music Circus of “Birdie” in the Wells Fargo Pavilion. It had last been presented under the old tent in 1999. Now that the musical works as a happy piece of nostalgia instead of a spoof, it might be offered more frequently. If future productions are as good as this one was, programming it more often would ensure more than a few retro swoons.