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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Village Theatre's Bye Bye Birdie
Takes Flight in Musical Numbers

Also see David's review of Irving Berlin's White Christmas

Bye Bye Birdie
Stacey Harris
Thanks to a few key performances, strong musical direction by Bruce Monroe, and particularly the still winningly melodic and smartly worded tune stack by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams, the 1960s Elvis Presley spoof Bye Bye Birdie still makes for a generally engaging evening of theatre. But the lumpy Michael Stewart book could use some retooling as much of it has become unfunny, not to mention being loaded with unfamiliar references that only folks over 60 will get. Steve Tomkins' choreography is adept and his dancers are light on their feet, but a more naturalistic direction of some of his main players would have brought out a lot more of the show's enduring charm.

Set in 1960, Presleyesque rock & roll icon Conrad Birdie, a US Army draftee, is convinced by his ne'er do well manager/songwriter Albert Peterson and Albert's vivacious fiancée in waiting Rosie to sing Peterson's new song, "One Last Kiss," to a chosen at random Ohio lass named Kim MacAfee for broadcast by hook-up to the Ed Sullivan on CBS-TV. Havoc naturally ensues once Kim's family, geeky steady boyfriend Hugo, and all of star-struck Sweet Apple, Ohio get a bad case of celebrity fever, as well as Albert's barracuda of a Jewish Mother showing up to make sure Albert's apron strings stay tightly tied.

Stewart's writing of Mama Mae Peterson is wholly unfunny by now, and many of her remarks are just mean spirited and racist. The vast character comedy skills of the stalwart Laura Kenny can't even make Mama Peterson anything but someone you really want to say bye bye to. Jason Collins as Albert has the vocal ease and eccentric dance skills necessary for numbers like "Put On A Happy Face" and "Baby Talk to Me," but he plays the character rather charmlessly, making it hard to see why Rosie has been so steadfastly smitten with him for so long. In the role of Rosie Alvarez, which vaulted Chita Rivera to Broadway star status, Stacey Harris, new to Seattle stages, is a sheer delight and a real triple threat. Harris gives an unforced, naturalistic performance, and dazzles in her big song and dance moments such as "Spanish Rose" and "The Shriners' Ballet." She even breaks through Collins' rather chilly demeanor as Albert in the warm closing duet to "Rosie."

Cara Rudd is a bit too wind up doll cutesy and vocally strident to make Kim the teen heroine she needs to be, and John Scott as her Hugo comes off more fey than geeky, pressing the mugging button too hard throughout. The perfect balance between character and caricature needed for the show is struck by John Deveney's befuddled dad, Harry MacAfee, Frances Leah King's benevolent and warm mom, Doris MacAfee, and droll child actor Morgan McFalls as Kim's younger brother Randolph, all three of whom shine in the still infectious Charleston-tinged "Kids," and along with Rudd in "Hymn to A Sunday Evening" which sings the praises of the all but forgotten Ed Sullivan. Another strong asset is the pitch perfect parody of Presley by Dan Connor, smoothly twitching and swiveling his way through "Honestly Sincere," "One Last Kiss," and "A Lot of Living to Do." Twinkling brightly in the ensemble are such worthy local talents as Nicole Boote as the obnoxious Gloria, Casey Craig as the adenoidal Harvey Johnson, and Jeffrey Hitchins as bar owner Mr. Maude.

Bob Dahlstrom's scenic design is notable for its efficient condensation of scenic elements to avoid a multiplicity of set changes. Denise Damico can take a bow for her colorful, mildly satirical '60s outfits. Bruce Monroe's pit orchestra delivers the distinctive Strouse sound with clarity and pizzazz.

This Birdie has more ups and downs than many a Village musical in recent memory, though again, it's the book that can take most of the blame. Oddly enough, time has been kinder to the typically tampered with 1963 film than the stage show itself, but the Strouse/Adams score still sends us out of the theatre humming, which is more than many recent musicals can say.

Bye Bye Birdie runs through December 31, 2006 at Village Theatre, 303 Front Street in Issaquah, then moves to Everett Performing Arts Center from January 5-21, 2007. For more information go on-line at www.villagetheatre.org.


Photo: Jay Koh



- David-Edward Hughes



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