Review: Bye Bye Birdie (Drury Lane Theatre)

| January 24, 2016

Jason Michael Evans stars as Conrad Birdie in Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)          
      
   

Bye Bye Birdie

By Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics)
  and Michael Stewart (book)
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
thru March 13  |  tix: $45-$60   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets   
    


    
  

Fun and flash over feelings

  

Telephone Hour from Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)

    
Drury Lane Theatre presents
    
Bye Bye Birdie

Review by John Olson

Before there was Grease, there was Bye Bye Birdie. It began an 18-month run on Broadway in April of 1960 and was a very contemporary, gentle satire of celebrity worship and the generation gap in the 1950’s. Back in that era when musicals still delivered hit tunes, Bye Bye Birdie gave us several. “Put on a Happy Face,” “Lot of Livin’ to Do,” “and “One Boy” were Top 40 hits, and the 1963 movie version starring original Broadway cast members Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde (but with Janet Leigh replacing Chita Rivera and introducing the 22-year-old Ann-Margret) was the year’s 13th highest grossing film. The musical remained a favorite for regional and summer stock Michelle Aravena as Rose in Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)productions for years, but gradually fell out of favor as it came to be seen as dated. Now, with several decades between today’s audiences and the late ‘50s/early ’60s era in which it’s set, it’s been resurrected as a period piece. This Drury Lane production is executed impeccably and, through projections designed by Christopher Ash (shown on his minimal set), recreates the period nicely through a combination of historical photos and staged shots using the cast members. But, the current distance from that era may have led this production’s creative team to lampoon where the original satirized and to comment where the original observed. Director-Choreographer Tammy Mader’s take on Bye Bye Birdie is funny, flashy and thoroughly professional, but it loses some of the piece’s charm.

Comparing this revival to the film, which was recently screened on TCM, the main difference is in Mader’s take on the male lead, the songwriter-manager Albert Peterson. Albert’s meal ticket, Conrad Birdie, is an enormously popular rock singer modeled on Elvis Presley who’s been drafted and is about to be inducted in the army, as was Presley in 1958. Mader and her Albert, Matthew Crowle, commendably go for something different from the approach of the original, Dick Van Dyke approach. You can guess the reasons – who’s going to out-likable Van Dyke, the very definition of likability? This Albert seems more the show business hustler – a plausible take on the character – and Crowle is an immensely talented performer –great at physical humor and a solid singer. His Albert is entertaining and watchable – it’s just a little harder to root for the guy since he’s more arrogant and less self-aware. As Kim, the teenager who’s chosen at random to be a surrogate for all American girls and give Birdie a farewell kiss live on the Ed Sullivan Show, Leryn Turlington displays nice vocal chops but is directed to be a bit of a ditz – a comic figure rather than the sweet kid we can chuckle at knowingly.

Telephone Hour from Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner) Isabelle Roberts and Matt Crowle in Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)Matt Crowle and Michelle Aravena in Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner) "The Telephone Hour" from Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)Michelle Aravena as Rose in Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)

Fortunately, Mader has cast Michelle Aravena as Rose. Ms. Aravena is making something of a career recreating Chita Rivera’s signature roles – she’s played West Side Story’s Anita on tour and last year at Drury Lane. She has the comic skills, vocal and dancing abilities to be compared quite favorably with Ms. Rivera. Aravena’s Rose is the anchor here – keeping us invested in the characters. Also likable is Ryan Stajmiger as Hugo, Kim’s cute but mildly nerdy trombone-playing ( a character type near and dear to me) boyfriend. Catherine Smitko is suitably nasty as Albert’s controlling mama Mae, while George Andrew Wolff and Brianna Borger do nice work as the comically clean-cut ‘50s parents, even if they both read a little young for their roles. Wolff wisely avoids imitating the inimitable Paul Lynde, who originated the role of dad Harry MacAfee. The remainder of the cast – including an ensemble of singer-dancers young enough to read "The Telephone Hour" from Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)as teens and older performers to play the parents – are pretty much flawless and execute Mader’s dances with precision and athleticism. Mader’s “Shriner’s Ballet” – in which Rose flirts with a group of fez-topped middle-aged men – is marvelously inventive in its physicality as the men are gradually seduced from a dull business meeting into a minor frenzy. Legs and heads pop from over an under a tablecloth-draped banquet table in an unpredictably hilarious manner. Mader’s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” is also a production number highlight as well.

It’s the score more than the story, I suspect, that keeps Bye Bye Birdie on our stages and TV screens. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams gave us one of the most hit-laden scores of the later Golden Era, and they brilliantly merged a Broadway sound with the rock-pop of the day. They made “One Boy” (a top 40 hit for Joanie Sommers) and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” sound like show tunes even as they sounded like songs the young characters would sing. This production loses some of that cross-genre quality. New orchestrations by Matt Aument in place of the originals by Robert Ginzler (who orchestrated Gypsy and How to Succeed… among many others) or the Broadway revival’s charts by Jonathan Tunick (who’s scored most of Sondheim’s shows). Aument, in his scoring, chose to make the songs sound more like pop recordings of the era, but he’s simplified the harmonies to the point that the songs lose a good deal of their heart. It’s another way this production, fun as it is, seems a bit disconnected to the people of the era – making the net effect farcical rather than comical. Michael Stewart’s book surely was poking fun at these characters, but at the same time, I think he knew that the types of people he was portraying were by and large his audience. There was an affection and connection there that’s been lost in this production, where they’re shown to be products of a simpler, sillier time.

  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Bye Bye Birdie continues through March 13th at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace (map), with performances Wednesdays 1:30pm, Thursdays 1:30pm & 8pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 5pm & 8:30pm, Sundays 2pm & 6pm.  Tickets are $45-$60, and are available by phone (630-538-0111) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at DruryLaneTheatre.com(Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)

Jason Michael Evans stars as Conrad Birdie in Drury Lane Theatre's "Bye Bye Birdie" by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, directed and choreographed by Tammy Mader. (photo credit: Brett Beiner)

Photos by Brett Beiner


  

artists

cast

Matthew Crowle (Albert Peterson), Michelle Aravena (Rose Alvarez), Jason Michael Evans (Conrad Birdie), George Andrew Wolff (Harry MacAfee), Brianna Borger (Doris MacAfee), Catherine Smitko (Mae Peterson), Leryn Turlington (Kim MacAfee), Rowan Moxley, Cam Ezell (Randolph MacAfee), Ryan Stajmiger (Hugo Peabody), Stephanie Hansen (Ursula Merkle), Laura Savage (Gloria Rasputin), Roger Mueller (Mayor, Ed Sullivan’s Voice), Jill Shellabarger (Mayor’s Wife), Michael Accardo (Mr. Henkle, Shriner), Isabelle Roberts, Maya Lou Hlava (Sad Girl), Holly Stauder (Mrs. Merkle), Nicholas Foster (Mr. Johnson, Shriner), James Rank (TV Stage Manager, Charles F. Maude, Shriner); Johnson Brock, Amanda Compton Lopresti, Cole Doman, Kim Green, Rhett Guter, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Hanah Rose Nardone, Anthony Norman, Jenna Schoppe, Monica Thomas (ensemble)

behind the scenes

Tammy Mader (director and choreographer), Alan Bukowiecki (music direction), Matt Aument (orchestrations), Christopher Ash (scenic and projection design), Charles Cooper (lighting design), Ray Nardelli (sound design), Sharon Sachs (costume design), Rick Jarvie (hair and wig design), Juli Walker (production manager), Larry Baker (production stage manager), Evan Sposato (technical director), Richard Strimer (assistant director, associate choreographer), Matthew D. Carney (company manager), H. Erin Quist (asst. stage manager), Ben Johnson (conductor), William Osetek (artistic director), Cassy Schillo (props design supervisor), Hanna K. Davis (costume shop manager), Carey Deadman (music contractor), Kyle DeSantis (executive producer), Drew DeSantis (producer), Jason Van Lente, Abigail DeSantis (producers), Jim Jensen (special projects manager), Isabelli Media Relations (press representative), Brett Beiner (photos)

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Category: 2016 Reviews, Charles Strouse, Drury Lane Oakbrook, John Olson, Musical, Video, YouTube

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