Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 16, 2016

Bye Bye Birdie

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through September 8, 2016
by Bernadette Johnson

Staging a classic the likes of “Bye Bye Birdie” is a definite challenge. The Tony Award-winning 1960-61 Broadway production has been performed time and time again. How then to convince the audience this is more than just “been there, done that?” 
Goodspeed has succeeded. Under the dynamic direction of Jenn Thompson, enlivened by Patricia Wilcox’s crisp choreography and David Krane’s dance arrangements, this ageless musical has taken on new vitality and exuberance, appealing to theater-goers of all ages. 
Photo by Diane Sobolewski
“Bye, Bye Birdie” echoes the real-life story of Elvis Presley, who was drafted into the army in 1957, provoking a media circus that included his giving a member of the Women’s Army Corps “one last kiss.” Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter), the rock-and-roll legend of the title, is likewise drafted, and his agent and songwriter, Albert Peterson (George Merrick), in tandem with his secretary and sweetheart, Rose “Rosie” Alvarez (Janet Dacal), come up with a publicity stunt—Birdie singing “One Last Kiss” and giving one lucky girl in a small town in Ohio a real “last kiss” on the “Ed Sullivan Show” before going into the Army. 
Throw in a few subplots—Alvarez giving Peterson a final ultimatum (give up the music business or else); Mae (Kristine Zbornik), Peterson’s overbearing mother, constantly meddling; 15-year-old Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel) being chosen to receive “the kiss” despite protests from Hugo Peabody (Alex Walton), her new “steady;” and the disruption Birdie’s arrival causes in small town Sweet Apple, especially in the MacAfee household.
Casting is spot-on. Guter renders Conrad Birdie’s two-sided character exceptionally well. On cue, he is the hip-thrusting, gyrating teen heartthrob, who makes even the mayor’s wife (Marci Reid) swoon and faint. Behind the scenes, he is the MacAfees’ selfish and rude house guest. Guter’s performance of “Honestly Sincere” sends screaming, frenzied teens into the aisles to the audience’s delight.
Merrick is charming and playful as he tries to convince first Alvarez, then a downcast teenager, to “Put on a Happy Face.” Dacal wows the audience with “Spanish Rose,” a delightful declaration of her determination to kick up her heels Spanish-style to spite Peterson’s racist mother.
Warren Kelley is a definite standout as the disgruntled Harry MacAfee, who pours out his frustration with his own kids and kids in general (“What’s The Matter with Kids Today?”), then tries to take over the spotlight, hamming it up on Sullivan’s show. Another audience favorite is Zbornik, especially when she laments tongue-in-cheek that “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
Thanks to Daniel Brodie, nostalgia pervades as black and white TV screens project Ed Sullivan and other throwbacks to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Staging and costumes are period-perfect, the cast is filled with great voices and fantastic dancers, and the entire show is simply delightful. What’s not to love?