Friday, July 10, 2015

Bye Bye Birdie

Larry Raben as Albert Peterson, left, Amanda Jane Cooper as Kim MacAfee, Nathaniel Hackmann as Conrad Birdie, Sainty Nelsen as Ursula Merkle, Kathryn Mowat Murphy (Mayor’s wife) and Steve Geary (Mayor) perform with the company in “Bye Bye Birdie,” produced by Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion through Sunday, July 12. Kevin Graft/Courtesy photo

 In 1957, rock-and-roll idol Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army, sparking a media circus that probably was tame by today’s standards. Millions of teenage girls went into mourning that their idol was going away to serve his country for 18 whole months.

Writers Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics), who had been trying to work out the plot for a new musical, took Presley’s induction and ran with it. The musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” now at the Music Circus, was nominated for eight Tony Awards that year, and won four, including the award for Best Musical.

The Music Circus has presented this delightful show four times before, but not since 1999, so it was fun to see it back on stage.

The rock-and-roll hunk, Conrad Birdie in this production, is Nathaniel Hackmann, who bumps and grinds with the best of them, and sings in that Elvis way that knocks girls (and some married women) off their feet. Hackmann is a little more subdued than some Birdies I’ve seen, but he gets his point across.

Conrad is a little short in the smarts department and relies on his agent, Albert Peterson (Larry Raben), to manage his career. This is the role that made Dick Van Dyke a superstar, and while Raben doesn’t have the pizzazz of Van Dyke, his smooth performance and his nimble toes make this a very likable Albert indeed. His “Put on a Happy Face” with Sad Girls Ashley Anderson and Sarah Marie Jenkins was very sweet.

Peterson’s right-hand woman is Rosie Alvarez. Janine DiVita gives a stellar performance. She takes command of the stage from the moment she steps on it and the stage lights up every time she returns. She is simply outstanding.

Rosie has come up with a great plan to make Conrad’s entry into the Army a highlight of his career and suggests that Albert write a song called “One Last Kiss,” which Conrad will sing to one of his millions of teenage fans, picked at random.

Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio, is the lucky girl. Amanda Jane Cooper is amazing. To watch her on stage, you’d think she was a bright-eyed, fresh-faced teenager, totally convincing as one of Conrad’s worshippers. In fact, according to her bio, Cooper is a theater veteran who has a lengthy performing résumé, including playing Glinda in the first touring production of “Wicked.”

Rebecca Baxter is Kim’s mother, a solid performance that would do credit to Beaver Cleaver’s mother. She’s the perfect 1950s housewife, complete with heels and crinoline under her skirt.

I don’t know if he was trying to channel Paul Lynde or not, but Stuart Marland’s performance as Mr. MacAfee was definitely a credit to Lynde, the original Mr. MacAfee. He’s blustery and in awe of his hero, Ed Sullivan, when he learns the family is to be on Sullivan’s show.

Albert’s mother, Mae Peterson, is played by Mary-Pat Green, who is deliciously overbearing and the master of the guilt trip.

Garett Hawe is Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo. The two have just been pinned and Hugo does not take kindly to the idea of Kim being kissed by Conrad. He’s the perfect gawky teen, but he grows up before our eyes as he gradually gets the courage to let everyone know how he feels.

There is an ensemble of teens and townspeople making for fun numbers like “The Telephone Hour” and “One Last Kiss.”

“Bye Bye Birdie” is a show that lends itself easily to adding extras from time to time. A story of a rock idol who needs screaming fans is a great place to use members of the Music Circus junior company, who fill the aisles of the Wells Fargo Pavilion, joining with the chorus, waving Birdie banners, and screaming appropriately. It gave the production the feel of a much bigger show.

This is definitely a high-energy, fun show that evokes a time when life seemed much simpler, though some of the dated references (e.g., the confusion between Mussolini and Rossallini) did not seem to connect with the younger crowd.

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