Bye Bye Birdie

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“Bye Bye Birdie” has not aged well, but the SLCC Grand Theatre’s production of it, running through May 1, is an energetic, rollicking treat.

Set in 1959 (one year before it actually premiered on Broadway), the musical was meant as a parody of the rock ‘n’ roll idols of the day and the sort of madness they inspired among young people. Rock star Conrad Birdie (played with great oily dumbness by the talented Mark Gollaher) has been drafted into the Army, thus meaning the end of his career, as well as that of his manager/songwriter Albert Peterson (Dave Evanoff). But Albert’s long-suffering girlfriend/secretary Rose Alvarez (Jeanette Puhich) has an idea: Choose a fan at random, and have Conrad give her a “goodbye kiss” live on television just before he goes. The ensuing publicity — not to mention the record sales for the “One Last Kiss” song Albert will write — will be huge.

The lucky girl is one Kim MacAfee (Elizabeth Thornell) of Sweet Apple, Ohio. Kim is 14 going on 25, feeling quite mature after having been “pinned” by her beau, the rather dull Hugo S. Peabody (Geoffrey Hemingway). She’s excited to have Conrad and company staying at her house before the Big Kiss, but Hugo is jealous. Rose gets jealous, too, when Albert won’t commit to marriage (that’s all women wanted in ’50s musicals) and won’t take measures to get his pushy mother (Wrae McCarthy) out of his life.

“Bye Bye Birdie” was probably fairly hip when it first hit Broadway, but several jokes go over the heads of today’s audiences. There are references to Peter Lawford, Gene Raymond, The Shadow, and Sammy Kaye, and a joke in which you have to know that Henry Luce was the publisher of Time magazine. These references weren’t obscure in 1960, but they are now.

But the story is gentle and light-hearted, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ songs (“Kids,” “Put on a Happy Face”) are still as toe-tapping as ever; I can guarantee some humming in the car on the way home. There’s some humor in them, too: Listen to the lyrics as Conrad sings his incredibly stupid “Honestly Sincere” (“When I sing about a tree/I really feel that tree,” etc.).

Puhich is a dynamo as Rose. The character is supposed to be of Spanish descent — the subject of not a few awkwardly unfunny barbs from Albert’s mom — and Puhich is not even close, but it doesn’t matter. She has a fantastic singing voice, belting out every song like it’s a show-stopper. Evanoff sings and dances with the best of them as Albert, but even he is no match for the magnificent Puhich.

Wrae McCarthy and Spencer Ashby play characters with great comic potential — Albert’s mom and Kim MacAfee’s dad, respectively — but both actors tend to drag their lines out, speaking unfathomably slow, missing some good laughs in the process.

The large cast of teens is peppy and enthusiastic, and the show moves along swiftly, thanks to a very fast stage crew moving the many set pieces on and off speedily.

This is a family show, full of fun and merriment and some very enjoyable music.

This was a first for me: reviewing a show that I had once performed in. We did "Bye Bye Birdie" my senior year in high school. I played Harry MacAfee, the grumpy, middle-aged father of Kim MacAfee (Paul Lynde played the part on Broadway and in the movie; my interpretation was more jittery and flustered, whereas his was more gay). I had a blast doing that show; it was a highlight in a high school career desperately in need of highlights. I got big laughs, too, which is what it's all about.

It was very hard to review a show that I'd been in, mainly because I was so thoroughly familiar with it (even though seven years had passed, I still remembered most of the dialogue and lyrics). I had to imagine, "What would a person who didn't know the show at all think of this?" Fortunately, I was with a friend who knew nothing about it, so I could use his reaction as a gauge.

Two amusing things happened in the audience during this show. First, an old couple behind us did the quintessential old-people-at-a-show thing: One of them didn't hear something in the dialogue, asked the other one what the actor said, and the other one told him -- all in a regular, non-whispering voice. The funny part is what, exactly, he didn't hear. Onstage, Albert's mother gave this line: "I have a condition. Never mind what kind of a condition, it's a condition. And if there's one thing a doctor can't cure, it's a condition." She said the word "condition" four times. Naturally, the old guy behind us said, "She has a what?" And his wife said, "A condition."

Second: Seated next to us was a young couple on a date. They were a handsome couple, looked to be rather well-bred and well-mannered. During the show, the guy's cell phone rang. Now, I can forgive that, because sometimes we cell phone-owners forget to turn the ringers off when the show starts. When it rings, we're embarrassed, and we quickly turn the phone off before it can even ring a second time, problem solved. Only this guy didn't turn it off when it rang; he answered it.

Now, even THAT I could maybe forgive, if he said this: "Hello?... I'm in a play. I'll call you back" and then hung up. But this guy didn't do that. He said: "Hello?... I'm in a play. Can I call you back?... Will you be there?... Yeah, I'll call you.... Probably in a few minutes.... OK.... OK.... All right.... Bye." At intermission, we beat him to death with hammers.

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