[Sidebar] July 12 - 19, 2001
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Flying high

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.

[Bye Bye Birdie] 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 they were.

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.

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