Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Energetic Dancing in Broadway by the Bay Production of Bye Bye Birdie
Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' Bye Bye Birdie has become popular since it reminds us of those halcyon days of the '50s when life was not so complicated and musicals were meant to entertain us. No special effects were needed either. Broadway by the Bay, a semi-professional company, recently presented the "happy face" musical at the San Mateo Performing Art Center, San Mateo, California.
Bye Bye Birdie opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 14, 1960 and received thumbs up reviews from the critics. It ran 607 performances. I saw the show during the summer of 1960 with Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Dick Gautier, Kay Medford and the wonderful Paul Lynde (this is where my friendship with Mr. Lynde started). The Tony Award for best musical of 1961 was awarded to the zippy musical. There were several tours throughout the states over the next few years. Joan Blondell found a new audience on these tours as Mae, the typical Jewish mother who dominated the life of her 34-year-old son. Columbia purchased the show in 1963 and made considerable changes so that Ann Margaret became the center of attention as the film version Kim. The producers tried a follow up production called Bring Back Birdie starring Donald O'Connor that failed to attract attention.
Television got into the act in 1995 with a second-rate production starring Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams and Marc Kudisch. The City Center Encores series revived the show this year with Daniel Jenkins, Karen Ziemba and Doris Roberts. Since then, regional theater companies, including several in the Bay Area, have been presenting this vigorous musical.
Bye Bye Birdie was one of the first musicals to satirize the existence of rock 'n' roll. One of the most appealing musical shows of our times, Bye Bye Birdie's story is gentle and lighthearted . The musical tells the story of rock 'n' roll singer Conrad Birdie (David Sattler), who is to be inducted into the army. His agent, Albert Peterson (Michael Farbstein), is somewhat mild-manner to be in this profession, but he has his faithful secretary Rose Alvarez (Gennine Harrington-Taylor) to keep him moving forward in the world.
Rose concocts one final national publicity plan before Conrad's induction: to choose a fan at random and have Conrad give her a goodbye kiss on the Ed Sullivan television show. They will also be able to plug Conrad's latest hit, "One Last Kiss," which Albert has written. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee (Brittany Ogle) of Sweet Apple, Ohio. Kim is 14 but seems to have an adult mind since she is very mature for a '50s girl. However, trouble is already brewing since she has been "pinned" by her very dull boyfriend Hugo (Ryan Courtin). Conrad will stay in the MacAfee home much to the dismay of Mr. MacAfee (Craig Jessup). There is even trouble in the relationship of Albert and Rose since Albert won't commit to marriage because of his perfect and pushy Jewish mother (Robin Sands Fife). Things go wrong, of course, with jealousy everywhere.
Bye Bye Birdie is a satire done with fond affection. The songs are toe-tapping and upbeat, like the standard "Put on a Happy Face" and the wonderful melodic "One Boy." "Kids" and "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" are still hilarious, and a high point is the "Spanish Rose" number in the second act. These are songs you can hum when you leave the theatre.
Director Dyan McBride has assembled a very good adult and teenage cast with the excellent help of choreographer Berle Davis. (Davis was in the original cast of Bye Bye Birdie in New York and he has patterned the dances after those of the original choreographer Gower Champion.) Seventeen adult and teenage dancers are assembled on the stage, and these terpsichoreans are full of energy and great precision. The first number, of the teenagers on the phone doing different moves in an arrangement of boxes three tiers high, is still a great opening. The dancers excel in "Spanish Rose" number.
Gennine Harrington-Taylor is outstanding as Rose. She is not only gorgeous but super-talented in both song and dance. Her "Spanish Rose" is dynamic, as she is a spitfire who shakes up the Shriners Club meeting. She is great as she belts out her songs. Michael Farbstein makes a perfectly mild-mannered Albert who is torn between his girlfriend Rose and his aggressive mother. Farbstein displays wonderful dancing ability in "Put on a Happy Face" with a little of Donald O'Connor in him (Farbstein played Cosmo in Singin' in the Rain several years ago).
Pure comedy is handled well by Craig Jessup as Mr. MacAfee and Robin Sands Fife as Mrs. Peterson. Jessup plays the role less gay than Lynde but he tends to get a little over-excited in some of the scenes. His rendition of "Kids" is top grade, and he provides good vocal harmony on "Hymn for a Sunday Evening." Ms. Fife comes over strong as the mother from hell. She dominates her scenes with her commanding stage presence.
Brittany Ogle plays Kim, and she has a great voice which soars in "How Lovely to be a Woman" and "One Boy." She gives a good portrayal of a hip teenage girl in Ohio in the late '50s. David Sattler is an Elvis look-a-like with his long side burns, pumped up hair, swinging hips and drop-dead good looks. Conrad Birdie is an egocentric and somewhat dumb rock star; even the lyrics that Adams wrote for him are incredibility stupid. He sings a song that is a salute to the oxymoron called "Honestly Sincere" in which he sings about a tree and that he feels like that tree. He has a first class voice. Ryan Courtin is a scene stealer as the tedious Hugo Peabody, who just can't keep Kim from her first kiss with the rock star. He is great when he "gets drunk on milk" and keeps popping up with cute drunk scenes.
Director McBride keeps the musical moving swiftly and lively, with the exception of the last scene in the first act when there are just too many activities going on at once on that large stage, with MacAfee trying to get into the act in front of the camera that is going out live on the Sullivan show. The timing was completely off at our Sunday matinee. The large orchestra under the direction of Mark Hanson has that lively beat with a few exceptions in the brass sections in the second act, which could have been due to the fact that the auditorium was exceedingly hot.
Bye Bye Birdie played through August 1, 2004 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 400 Delaware, San Mateo.
Their last attraction for the 2004 season will be Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, which opens on September 24 and runs through October 10.