Los Angeles Theater Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE (Glendale Centre Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on February 24, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


Having no intention of reviewing, I bought a couple tickets to a non-union production of Bye Bye Birdie, but the entire affair had me so damn giddy that I can’t be quiet about it — and you have until April 1 to catch it. It’s as welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring: A cascading, minute-by-minute hit, this 1960 musical is a showcase for happiness even as it merrily mocks the pseudo-innocent “togetherness” of the Eisenhower Era and the scary advent of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley’s two-year draft into the Army in 1958 was the headline-making news that this show trades on and sends up — teen dream Conrad Birdie is clearly “The King,” pulsating pelvis and all (although the creators named the character after Elvis’s competition at the time: Conrad Twitty).

This bad boy of rock makes a shameless PR journey to Sweet Apple, Ohio to give a pre-enlistment “One Last Kiss” to lucky 15-year-old Kim MacAfee, a fan club president and Sandra Dee-wanna-be. And it’s all gonna be live, on Sunday night’s vastly popular Ed Sullivan Show no less. The rock star’s arrival in this Norman Rockwell burg shakes up Sweet Water, just as “Professor” Harold Hill did River City, Iowa (The Music Man [1957] was still playing on Broadway when Birdie opened).

Todd Nielsen’s revival at the in-the-round Glendale Centre Theatre, cleverly using video panels to expose the plot’s televised artificiality, is an irresistible, infectious doo-wop romp. It’s gloriously embellished with both Orlando Alexander’s terrific sock-hop/American Bandstand-style dance sequences and the ensemble’s cunning caricatures, which never feel inauthentic. I believe every compelling member of Conrad’s ever-screaming fan club, which is as it should be: When Birdie opened, the rabid teens presented here were the real deal (patrons today get the added bonus of nostalgia). Michael Stewart’s dialogue remains sitcom sharp, Charles Strouse’s melodies are absolute delights, and Lee Adams’ lyrics exploit, spoof, honor and embrace the feel-good wholesomeness of this white-bread fantasy. Not only do you get a musical comedy that’s actually funny (a mom’s ridiculously derogatory remarks about Mexicans are a hoot), you get hit after hit after hit after hit after hit. And when I say the cast is adorable, I mean heartwarming not cutesy.

There’s a whole lot of shaking going on in Sweet Apple between the caught-in-the-crossfire locals and the fish-out-of-water New Yorkers. As if horny Birdie isn’t handful enough, Conrad’s overdriven 33-year-old manager and record producer Albert Peterson (Robert Pieranunzi, the cast’s only Equity member, doing Dick Van Dyke proud) must placate his fiery girlfriend and secretary Rosie Alvarez (Colette Peters, exquisitely pulling off a tough role created around triple-threat Chita Rivera). Like frustrated Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, she wants this mama’s boy to marry her and become the “English Teacher” he was meant to be. Easily cowed, milquetoast Albert must contend with his sourpuss guilt-piling mother Mae (sassy Cindy Irwin Bullock). Meanwhile, super-handsome Adam Hollick’s swivel-hipped Conrad is just cool enough to belt out his signature ballad “Honestly Sincere” and to teach the eager Buckeye kids—a golden ensemble—just how much “livin’” they’ve got left (“A Lot of Livin’ to Do”).

Naturally, Conrad’s synthetic dalliance with teenybopper Kim riles up her jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Maryanne Burr smartly abandons the sex kitten so often chosen for this role, which means her fetching “One Boy” sung to the immensely likable Taylor Wesselman as her newly pinned beau had me swooning). The scorned lover joins forces with Rose, as Kim does with Conrad, to straighten out their rocky romances. The love-crossed shenanigans get sorted out in a second-act showdown at the town’s notorious Ice House. By then we’ve been regaled with a Top-40 Hit Parade, effortlessly ranging from the foxtrot to the Herky Jerky to the Hully Gully to the Stroll to your heart.

Too smart to be sentimental, it brims with showbiz wonders: There’s the gossip girls’ contagious “Telephone Hour”; Pieranunzi’s moxie-packed tap dance with the sad girl teens in “Put on a Happy Face”; Peters’ go-for-broke, tour-de-force blowout with astonished conventioneers in the “Shriners’ Ballet” at the dive known as Maude’s Roadside Retreat; and Danny Michaels and Tracy Ray Reynolds as Kim’s frazzled parents lamenting “Kids” (and the captivating Travis Burnett-Doering sounds awesome as Kim’s younger brother singing the tune that made Paul Lynde a star).

I’m never a fan of piped orchestra music, which can have a synthesized sound at times, but it didn’t matter a whit here. Nor did the low budget or lights spilling out into the audience or “Pennsylvania” spelled wrong in a slide. This is, don’t forget, community theater on steroids, which means any wrong note or noisy exit is immediately forgotten because the players’ pure love of the project whips this show into a frothy Elysium. Most important is that the sound worked amazingly well (both set and sound can be credited to Nathan Milisavljevich). There’s not a false moment in this deliriously delightful, well-cast revival (and you can take a family of four to see this for the price of one ticket to the deflating Finding Neverland across town).

Most surprising was the touching ending: The creators wisely knew this zany comedy needed to be grounded in a love story. So when Albert begins dancing Fred-and-Ginger style near the end of “Rosie,” I dare you not to get a lump in your throat. If you packed an ounce more fun into this sizzler, it would explode.

photos courtesy of Glendale Center Theatre

Bye Bye Birdie
Glendale Centre Theatre
324 N. Orange St. in Glendale
ends on April 1, 2017
for tickets, call 818 244-8481 or visit GCT

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