Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Bye Bye Birdie
Also see Gil's recent reviews of A Soldier's Play, Like Heaven, Private Lives
With an upbeat score by Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics) and a humorous book by Michael Stewart, Bye Bye Birdie is a humorous satire based on the moment in 1957 when Elvis Presley, who was at the top of his fame, was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Here, the rock star is Conrad Birdie who is about to head off to the military. Without Conrad available while he's in the service, his manager and songwriter Albert doesn't know what to do since his company needs the revenue from Conrad to keep them in business. Rosie, the company's secretary and girlfriend of Albert, comes up with a publicity stunt to send Conrad off in style while also getting plenty of press and hopefully selling a lot of records. Kim, a member of Conrad's teenage fan club, is selected at random to receive "One Last Kiss" from Conrad in her hometown of Sweet Apple, Ohio, while he sings a new song of the same name, which will be broadcast live on "The Ed Sullivan Show." However, everything doesn't go exactly as planned, especially when Albert's domineering mother Mae hears of Albert's plans to quit the family business and go off, as Rosie wishes, to become an English teacher.
The score and book satirize the youth of America's attraction to singers like Elvis and the emergence of rock music and the confusion their parents often had over the changing views and actions their children made, such as calling their parents by their first names. The score features several songs that became well known hits, including "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do." The 1960 Broadway production made a star out of Dick Van Dyke, who won a Tony as Albert, and the show also won the Tony for Best Musical in 1961.
The Hale cast is wonderful. As Albert, Tyler Brignone exhibits an abundance of charm yet also a fun and frantic side whenever his mother is around. He also has good comic chops and a nice singing voice that delivers a winning rendition of the show's most famous song, "Put On a Happy Face." Coming right off her rousing success of playing the title character in Hale's production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which just closed last week, Michala Montaño is excellent as Rosie. Her sharp acting skills let us sees Rosie's determination in both her drive to get Albert to quit his job and in her dealings with Albert's overbearing mother Mae. Montaño also elicits a lovely and sweet side when it comes to Rosie's encounters with Kim and Kim's beau Hugo. Montaño's singing voice soars on Rosie's numerous songs, including an excellent "Spanish Rose," and her performance is simply exceptional throughout.
Matthew Dodaro exhibits the right amount of aloofness as Birdie along with gyrating dance moves and enough voice inflection to evoke a hint of Elvis in his performance. His strong vocals provide a powerful rock touch to Birdie's songs. Brie Wadsworth-Gates is sweet and charming as Kim, and Hector Coris and Kathleen Richards are lovely as Kim's parents, Harry and Doris MacAfee. Coris is a gifted comic and ratchets up the level of frustration Harry feels from the changes he's experiencing in a perfectly pitched performance that gets big laughs. Gina Guarino is just as good as Mae, the domineering mother from hell. She wrings every ounce of humor from every line of dialogue and scene she has, including bringing the house down on opening night by simply showing the top of her panty hose. When a performer gets huge exit applause at the end of a scene, like both she and Coris received numerous times at the performance I attended, you know they are highly talented comic actors.
In smaller roles, Truman Regard-Whipple is bright and charming as Hugo, Kim's boyfriend; Zachary Nelson is endearing as Kim's little brother, Randolph; and Raymond Barcelo and Ivana Martinic are fun as the town Mayor and his wife; Martinic also gets to camp it up as a woman Mae finds for Albert. Shaylee Flanagan delivers a winning performance as Ursula, one of Kim's best friends and fellow Conrad Birdie enthusiast. The ensemble all deliver sharp performances.
Director Cambrian James' staging makes great use of Hale's intimate, in-the-round space and his choreography is sharp, fun, period appropriate, and danced well by the talented ensemble. He also uses just about every inch of stage space to have the numbers explode. This is most apparent in his staging of "The Telephone Hour" number that uses telephone compartments on wheels that the ensemble moves around the stage in order to introduce all of the Sweet Apple teens. The technical aspects are very good. The costume designs by Tia Hawkes are bright and period appropriate in pastel colors with a combination of poodle skirts, vests, and bow ties that evoke the late 1950s. McKenna Carpenter's set uses several pieces that are quickly moved on and off stage to create the various locations in the show; however, the bulky pieces for the MacAfee home provide a bit of a challenge and slow down those set changes somewhat. Ryan Terry's lighting is bright and cheery and Boyd Cluff's sound design is crisp and sharp. Music director Lincoln Wright achieves warm, bright notes and lush harmonies from the entire cast.
Bye Bye Birdie is a nostalgic and fun romp back to the simpler times of America in the late 1950s while also poking fun at parents, teenagers, and their rock and roll obsession with performers like Elvis Presley. Hale Centre Theatre's production has a fantastic cast, sharp comic moments, winning musical numbers, and a whole lot of heart.
Bye Bye Birdie runs through July 1, 2023, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.haletheatrearizona.com or call 480-497-1181
Producers & Casting Directors: David & Corrin Dietlein