To be truthful, when I heard the lost-in-time Bye Bye Birdie musical would be revisited on the stage of the James F. Dean Theatre, the revelation immediately triggered only two recollections of the long ago original production; the song "Put on a Happy Face" and the name Dick Van Dyke. Other than that, the rest of it was just jailhouse rock. Understandably, I was only eleven when this glutinous play opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 4, 1960 and fourteen when MGM studios adapted Birdie into a movie musical in 1963. Interestingly, Dick Van Dyke starred in both.
Based on a book by Michael Stewart with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, after opening at the Martin Beck Theatre, it was moved to the 54th Street Theatre and finally the Shubert Theatre, where it closed after a total of 607 performances. Bye Bye Birdie garnered 7 Tony Nominations, ultimately winning 4 of them: Best Musical, Best Featured Actor (Dick Van Dyke) Best Choreography (Gower Champion), and Best Direction (Gower Champion).
Aside from Dick Van Dyke, the original Broadway cast included Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde, Susan Watson, Kay Medford, Charles Nelson Reilly (understudied as Albert Peterson for Van Dyke), Michael J. Pollard, and Dick Gautier as Conway Birdie and the film adaptation included Maureen Stapleton, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde, Bobby Rydell, Ann-Margret, and Jesse Pearson as Conway Birdie.
Originally titled Let's Go Steady, the play was billed as a "happy teenage musical with a difference." Then, things got all shook up. Rock-and-roll idol Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army in 1957. Before leaving the States for an eighteen-month tour in Germany, Elvis was to give one special member of the Women's Army Corps one last kiss, and with a little less conversation, the real life drama became the premise for the refreshed musical play. With the plot set, the team had to come up with a name for the rock and roll heartthrob lead.
The original name of the Elvis-inspired character was Ellsworth, but who would take a rock and roll idol with a name like that seriously. So, it was changed to Conway Twitty. Unfortunately, there was already a real life Conway Twitty, who took exception to someone using his name and threatened to sue. With a little more deliberation, the team finally came up with Conrad Birdie and Bye Bye Birdie was born with the idea to have the drafted singer give one last kiss to a girl by the name of Kim MacAfee in a place called Sweet Apple, Ohio.
With David Mclaughlin pulling the guitar strings as the play's Director/Musical Director and based on past experience, I was confident going in our journey back to the rock and roll mayhem of the late 50's characterized by swooning teeny boppers and a society fighting to hold onto its fragile naiveté would be fancifully entertaining, and true to form, David did not disappoint. The brick walls enclosing the modest stage of the James F. Dean Theatre reverberated with the energy and enthusiasm belted out by the play's capable cast from opening to close.
Always passionate about the characters she portrays, Elissa Horrell as Rosie Alvarez shined in “What Did I Ever See In Him?” and sizzled in the piece called "Shriner's Ballet". A woman on a mission with a suitcase of 8 wasted years and a vendetta to serve for a recent snub from long-time boyfriend, Albert, Rosie invades Maude's Roadside Retreat and as the new Spanish Rose, proceeded to set the all-male clientele’s pilot lights on fire with her spitfire charm and impassioned dance moves.
Charleston native Matthew Walker sings and dances his way through an obstacle course of relationship challenges as the conflicted Albert Peterson, songwriter and agent of Birdie. He helped a sadden Birdie fan (Jessica Zhou Seymour) “Put On A Happy Smile” and tries to win Rosie back with “Baby, Talk to Me”, but despite an impressive fermata finale to the rendition, his pleadings fell short.
Rosie wants more. She wants Albert to standup to his mother, Mrs. Mae Peterson (Cynthia McLaughlin), who shamelessly tries to cultivate a guilt trip in Albert and is highly critical of Rosie, labeling her a Latin floozy from South of the Border. Cynthia portrayed the heavy-footed, woe is me mother from Hades masterfully and in the process stole away some of the funnier moments in the play.
A good measure of the side-splitting hilarity was turned out by Carlos Nieto, whose facial contortions and comic demeanor launched a thousand laughs as the excitable and flustered Mr. Harry MacAfee. Carlos, along with S.E. Coy as Mrs. Doris MacAfee, effervescent Sidney Tarrant as Kim MacAfee, and Olivia Gainey (a natural talent with a killer smile) as Rachel MacAfee effectively collaborated on my favorite number of the night, “Hymn for a Sunday Evening (Ed Sullivan)”. It was a powerful piece of combined vocals at its best supported by eye-catching visual effects.
Did I mention the other boyfriend, the one that is sweet on Kim? Hugo Peabody has just pinned his object of affection, but not long after, finds out his beloved has accepted an invitation to receive Birdie’s last kiss on public television, and no less on the Ed Sullivan Show. Needless to say, he is beside himself with insecurity and jealousy (the persona that became Caleb O’Neal). What happens next? Rosie knows.
The set was colorful and functional, the supporting props and costumes accurately dated, the lighting effects were dazzling, the choreography explosive, and the sound was top notch, as were the timing and placement of the constantly changing backdrops handled by the play’s stage crew.
Bye Bye Birdie is fun, lighthearted entertainment. It is a total team effort of varying talents jam packed with oohs and aahs. Simply stated, there will be a whole lotta shakin’ goin on at the James F. Dean Theatre from August 4th to the 20th.
Purchase your tickets for Bye Bye Birdie.