Bye Bye Birdie is a time-traveling trip
by Bill Rodriguez
BYE BYE BIRDIE. By Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams. Directed by
Frank Anzalone. With Christopher Sutton, Jill Powell, Lynette Knapp, and Ryan
Williams. At Theatre-by-the-Sea through July 24.
Theatre-by-the-Sea is doing a snazzy job with Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960
musical that helped convince parents that rock 'n' roll and Elvis the Pelvis
were harmless, rather than the jungle-rhythm, priapic threats that we now know
Before it became a Broadway hit, the show's story went through more changes
than Zsa Zsa Gabor's marital status, finally settling on a winning hook when
Elvis got drafted. So rock swoon boy Conrad Birdie (Ryan Williams) has to
report for Army induction in two weeks, and his manager Albert Peterson
(Christopher Sutton) gets a great idea for publicity. Actually, it's his
long-suffering secretary Rose Alvarez (Jill Powell) who comes up with the plan
to have Birdie, on the eve of shipping out, give a fan his farewell kiss on
The Ed Sullivan Show.
The lucky town and fan club member arbitrarily chosen from Albert's Rolodex
are Sweet Apple, Ohio, and precocious Kim MacAfee (Lynette Knapp). Kim is 16
going on 27, in her own estimation, deciding to address her parents by their
first names and all but practicing queenly waves as she sings "How Lovely to Be
a Woman." We get to enjoy the jealousy of Kim's squeaky-voiced boyfriend Hugo
Peabody (Christopher Kauffmann) and, even more entertainingly, the apoplectic
ire of her father (Don Stitt). He and the missus (Suellen Estey) throw up their
hands through the exasperated "Kids" ("Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy loafers/And
while we're on the subject") and all but genuflect in "Hymn for a Sunday
Evening" when they learn they'll be on Ed Sullivan's variety show.
Williams slouches and pouts up an iconic Elvis impersonation, a streamlined
personification of every teeny-bopper's dream at the time, and every father's
nightmare. Since Birdie is more a figment of those fevered, vying imaginations
than flesh and blood, we don't even see the character until well into the
musical and hardly hear him until the second act. Portrayed as an aloof poser,
Williams can finally get his ass in gear in the Act One closer, "One Last
Kiss," doing some riotous hip calisthenics. Eventually, when his inevitable
seduction scene with Kim happens and the words "jailbait" work like pepper
spray, late '50s parental paranoia is assuaged.
Actually, the central romance is the enterprising Albert and his constantly
saving-the-day secretary Rose. Powell makes the silly role work on sheer spunk
and dancer's chops, filling the stage in a solo "Spanish Rose" song number that
could have been awfully static. Sutton is also better than his role, giving
Albert an assured presence but still letting the panic peek out. Less
successful is Lorraine Serabian as his mother Mae, written as a kvetching
Jewish matriarch despite their surname, but not inventing the sort of original
touches that can make a broad stereotype fresh and hilarious.
Speaking of such attempts, the role of Rose was written for Chita Rivera,
and we get a snapshot of the anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant bigotry of the
time through Mae's wisecracks. As revealing, though not put down, is Albert's
man-is-ultimate-ruler prelude to his proposal to Rose, which gets her all
dewy-eyed rather than pissed-off. After all, this musical was aimed at Broadway
regulars driving in from Larchmont, and arguments on the long ride home
wouldn't have done well for the box office.
Harmless targets are also made fun of. Teenagers commandeering telephones is
choreographed in "The Telephone Hour." After walking out on Albert, Rose struts
into a Shriner's meeting to cavort on and under the table and uncork the
libidos of the bank executive set in "Shriners' Ballet," which is quite the
finger-snappingly precise routine.
The Matunuck production is polished and energetic under Frank Anzalone's
direction. Costume design by Gail Cooper-Hecht, heavy on the shocking pink and
Ft. Lauderdale yellow, is a hoot, from the poodle skirts of the girls to the
numerous fashion plate changes of Rose. Cheryl deWardener's scenic design is
imaginative and varied, from the dizzying skyscrapers perspective in the
opening scene to the cluttered ice house, where the kids go to make out.
Part time capsule, part unintentional spoof of mid-century mores, Bye Bye
Birdie is a trip.