Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Bye Bye Birdie
Also see Gil's review of Pornozombies
Bye Bye Birdie is a fun and upbeat musical all about the innocence of America in 1960 and the fascination with rock music that was sweeping the country at that time. The musical is based on the time in 1957 when Elvis Presley, at the top of his fame, was drafted into the U.S. Army and gave a woman from the Women's Army Corps "one last kiss" before he shipped off overseas. Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale is presenting the musical as a part of their "Next Stage Theatre" series, which features cast members aged 12-19. The production is fun and upbeat, just like the musical, with some talented kids in the cast and a hilarious performance from director Lisa Barton (the only "over 19" year old in the cast) in a supporting role.
It's 1960 and rock and roll superstar Conrad Birdie has been drafted into the army. Rosie, the secretary turned girlfriend of Conrad's business manager Albert, comes up with a publicity stunt to send Conrad off in style. Conrad will appear in Sweet Apple, Ohio, where a member of his teenage girl fan club is chosen to receive "One Last Kiss" from Conrad 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, at Rosie's wishes, to become an English teacher.
With a charming score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and a humorous book by Michael Stewart, Bye Bye Birdie features songs that became well known hits, including "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do." It also made a star of Dick Van Dyke, who won a Tony for playing the part of Birdie's manager. The show also won the Tony for Best Musical in 1961.
Director Lisa Barton has assembled a fairly capable cast of teenagers for the show. Jacob Emnett demonstrates a charming, yet perfectly frantic side to the mama's boy Albert. Megan Farinella makes Rosie appropriately feisty in her dealings with Albert's mom Mae, but she also shows a lovely and sweet side when it comes to her encounters with Kim, the Sweet Apple teenager enlisted to kiss Conrad goodbye, and Kim's beau Hugo. Jeremy Yampolsky has the gyrating dance moves and voice inflection to instill Conrad with just a hint of Elvis but not so much to make him an Elvis impersonator. The whole cast are excellent actors, giving plenty of thought and feeling to their line readings and their vocal abilities are fine to very good, with Farinella the best of the group. Her second act solo "Spanish Rose" receives a perfect comical delivery with Farinella expertly managing her way around the tricky lyrics.
Barton is a knock out as Mae, the most domineering mother ever. She wrings every comic moment out of every guilt-inducing line she has, and is a force of nature on stage. I also really liked Erin Tarkington's take on Ursula, one of Kim's best friends and fellow Conrad Birdie enthusiast. She has appropriate facial expressions and the right level of excitement in her actions and in her dealings with the other characters to make this supporting character into a very individual person.
Like previous Desert Stages shows, this production has a very large cast and there are numerous times when the stage appears very cramped. However, there are a couple of moments when the additional cast members make the scenes where Birdie encounters the people of Sweet Apple seem very realistic, as if he has actually come across a huge mob of screaming fans. Barton does a nice job not only of staging the large group of actors but also making many of the musical numbers explode throughout the theatre. This is very apparent in her staging of "The Telephone Hour" number that introduces all of the Sweet Apple teens, with teenagers in every conceivable space in the multi-layered stage.
This "in the round" production features a simple set design that includes brightly painted buildings and blue skies on the walls surrounding the audience, and the nice addition of painted sidewalks and grass on the stage floor. With just a few set pieces, Barton has managed to portray the various locales of the show. Rhea and Richard Courtney's costumes include a parade of pastel colored outfits that are a nice period touch for the many teenagers. The combination of Mae's giant fur coat and uneven stockings adds a nice comical touch to that comical character. Likewise, Conrad's gold leather jacket and black leather pants match his sexy rock star status, as does the use of vibrant dresses for Rose, including a nice polka dot number and a plush red floral print dress, to successfully portray her energetic character. Also, the incorporation of telephone cords attached to the girl's sneakers is an effective way to have them dance throughout the theatre while still talking on their phones.
My main quibbles have to do with the overly large cast and the continuing sound system issue at Desert Stages. As I've stated in previous reviews, the pre-recorded music tracks sometimes overpower the cast, and several of the cast's body mics suffer numerous drop outs, resulting in missed lines and lyrics. Hopefully, Desert Stages will invest in an upgraded system, or find a way to remedy these issues. And it would be nice to see a production of a musical at Desert Stages with an appropriately sized cast that doesn't add additional ensemble members that aren't really necessary to the show. They often overpower the small stage and it seems like there are more people on stage than in the audience. It is nice to see so many young people who want to perform in live theatre, but perhaps having just a few fewer cast members would be a way to not make it seem like every person who auditioned was cast in the show.
Bye Bye Birdie is a classic musical that pokes fun at teenagers and their rock and roll obsession with performers like Elvis Presley. But it also is a show with a lot of heart that celebrates the simple middle-class American values of the early 1960s. It works fairly well for the "Next Stage" series of Desert Stages shows that features cast members aged 12 to 19, since the majority of the characters in Bye Bye Birdie are in fact teenagers. Director Lisa Barton does a nice job in directing a very large cast of teenagers and is exceptional in her portrayal of Mae, the domineering mother from hell.
The Desert Stages production of Bye Bye Birdie runs through May 4, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at www.DesertStages.org or by phone at (480) 483-1664.
Director: Lisa Barton
Cast: (The show is double cast and the cast below is who performed at the performance I attended)