Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Bye Bye Birdie
The original was set in 1958 but the Goodspeed version occurs in 1961. Television's Ed Sullivan (recalled fondly by many in the audience at a recent matinee) is alluded to more than once at the Goodspeed. It seems that Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter) is an up and coming rock 'n roller, who is managed by Albert Peterson (George Merrick) - but Conrad has just been drafted. Albert's secretary/assistant is Rose Alvarez (Janet Dacal) and she devises a scheme: Conrad will go to Sweet Apple, Ohio and one lucky girl, who heads the Birdie Fan Club, will get to kiss her hero. Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel) is smitten with anticipation and she cannot believe her good fortune. She already has a boyfriend, hapless Hugo Peabody (Alex Walton). Rose, who is not shy, prods Albert to give up the music business and simply teach English. Albert, though, has his hands more than full attempting to fend off his mother, Mrs. Mae Peterson (Kristine Zbornik). Zbornik absolutely steals the show every moment she is given on the intimate Goodspeed stage. Late in the performance, she even has a new tune, perfectly entitled, "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore." More important, Zbornik's comic timing is precise and her New York accent does not waver. This is a delectable role and performance.
Along the way, we meet Kim's folks, Mr. MacAfee (Warren Kelley) and his wife (Donna English). Young actor Ben Stone-Zelman is splendid as Randolph MacAfee, Kim's little brother. Mr. and Mrs. MacAfee and Randolph bring the familiar song, "Kids," to the fore soon after the second act is underway. Before intermission the familiar highlight number remains "Put on a Happy Face," sung twice by Merrick. Later in the show, actors Guter, Buettel and others provide a lively version of "A Lot of Livin' lot Do."
Bye Bye Birdie is not often produced on the professional stage even as it is a go-to show for community and school theater. The entire Goodspeed presentation is beautifully evocative of the epoch. Tobin Ost's set choices as well as Dvid Toser's costuming are, given the time period, technicolor, so to speak. The music, through orchestrations by Dan DeLange and direction by Michael O'Flaherty, is sweetly brisk.
This Goodspeed rendering accordingly dwells upon those seeming but, perhaps not really so halcyon days of yesteryear. During the early going, an objective theatergoer might find it all a bit much. Is this a reality or satirical memory glance?
To be certain, the actors are topnotch. In addition to the aforementioned Kristine Zbornik, Janet Dacal, playing, Rose, must be singled out for another round of applause. She lifts her pitch perfect voice more than once in solos, such as "An English Teacher" and "Spanish Rose." Dacal infuses her character with gumption and smarts; this Rose knows what and whom she wants. Rhett Guter, as Conrad Birdie, does not imitate Elvis Presley but wisely invents a young star who is friendly and likable. It's easy to see why he attracts many. Buettel's Kim MacAfee sings and, most impressively, lights up the stage with some dazzling dance.
Goodspeed's choice of Bye Bye Birdie might have seemed puzzling. This musical, though, has been reimagined, really, by Jenn Thompson, who is directing production. It is light yet winsome entertainment.
Bye Bye Birdie continues at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut through September 8th. For tickets, call (860) 873-8668 or visit goodspeed.org.