Shrill, Dated ‘Birdie’ Doesn’t Fly
By Jim Farber Theater Critic
You might be better off renting the movie.
Maybe it’s time to say “bye-bye” to “Bye Bye Birdie.” At least that’s how I felt after sitting through Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities’ shrill cartoon presentation of the Elvis parody musical Sunday at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
In 1960, when the Michael Stewart/Charles Strauss/Lee Adams musical opened on Broadway (and in 1963 when the movie version came out), the whole Elvis phenomenon was news, not nostalgia. And the idea of a teen-based musical represented a bold stroke of innovation.
I can remember seeing the first road company when it came to Los Angeles and the overwhelming sense of charm, joy and satire the show projected. Then, like millions of others, I enjoyed the movie and fell in love with Ann-Margret.
What surprised me most about CLOSBC’s production was how crude and shrill it seems, lacking almost any sense of lighthearted charm and joy. The musical also feels so awkwardly dated that I wonder if younger, techno-savvy audiences will relate to it at all.
Had the direction and choreography by Dan Mojica been based on creating a nostalgic romp down memory lane, where we are introduced to at least reasonably believable characters, the dated nature of the material could work in its favor. But subtlety and nuance are not Mojica’s long suit. He stresses a style in which every line reading is pushed to the limit, until the entire performance takes on the level of a garish cartoon.
John Bisom plays Albert Peterson, manager and songwriter to the hottest rocker of the day, Conrad Birdie (James Royce Edwards), who has just been drafted. With the help of his able secretary, assistant and girlfriend, Rose Alvarez (Natalie Nucci), they come up with a PR stunt as a send-off for soon to be Private Birdie. He will bestow one last kiss on a lucky member of his fan club – Kim MacAfee (Jill Townsend) of Sweet Apple, Ohio, live on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The problem is, Albert (who comes across as a life-size Ken doll) is a total mama’s boy who is incapable of cutting the apron strings of his racist gorgon of a mother, Mae (Lana Hartwell). Her racial slurs regarding her son’s desire to marry a non-Anglo woman add an element of racial stereotyping to the musical that feels very uncomfortable today. Nucci, who is a musical-theater talent of the first order, however, has the last laugh.
The “teens” in the production are full of energy and spend a lot of time screaming when they’re not singing and dancing up a storm in the show’s best number, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.”
Townsend is a tuneful, perky Kim, so happy to be grown-up at age 15. But Robert Pieranunzi (at least under Mojica’s direction) plays her jock of a boyfriend, Hugo, as a total geek. What she sees in him is hard to fathom. Bobby Rydell (who played the role in the film) he is not.
The role of Kim’s hapless father (who can’t fathom “what’s the matter with kids today?”) is played by John Martin like a deranged version of Willard Scott. His wife, Doris, a blond-bouffant airhead, is played by Heather Lee.
Edwards swivels his hips convincingly as Conrad Birdie, but his singing voice and acting are modest. He is certainly light years away from projecting any sense of Elvis charisma.
The bouncy music direction that did its best to breathe life into this tired score was conducted by Alby Potts. The candy-bright costumes and sets are by Karen Cornejo and Christopher Beyries.
Jim Farber (310) 540-5511, Ext. 416 firstname.lastname@example.org
BYE BYE BIRDIE
>When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 5.
>Where: Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd.
>Information: (310) 372-4477, www.civiclightopera.com.
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