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Review: 'Bye Bye Birdie' a sweet return to 1950s rock 'n' roll

January 22, 2016 at 1:44 PM

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There's a whole lotta shaking going on this month in the western suburbs with two musicals about teen culture, late 1950s-to-early 1960s style. Aurora's Paramount Theatre is opening a new production of "Hairspray" and Drury Lane Theatre presents a revival of "Bye Bye Birdie." The difference, of course, is that the former is a smart nostalgic satirical twist on the era, while the latter is an actual relic best known now for the film version, starring Dick Van Dyke and Ann-Margret. (It has only been revived on Broadway once — in 2009 — since its 1960 debut, despite winning a Tony for best musical.)

Fortunately, Tammy Mader's staging of "Bye Bye Birdie," which she also choreographs, makes up for the creaky joints in Michael Stewart's book with plenty of kicky dance numbers and some standout performances. So while a joke built around confusion between Roberto Rossellini and Mussolini probably doesn't land the same way it did 56 years ago, Mader keeps the stage pictures popping with visual wit and sharp physical comedy. The handful of memorable songs in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' score (notably "Put On a Happy Face" and "Kids") land with pleasant recognition.

True, "Birdie" lacks the edges of "Hairspray" or even "Grease." Its underlying real-life inspiration — the induction of Elvis Presley into the Army at the height of his teeny-bopper fame — has subsequently been subsumed into endless Elvis mythologies and pathologies. And this isn't a show that celebrates the birth of rock culture as much as it makes the case for small-town values, even as it gently sends them up.

Instead of longing for the bright lights of the Big Apple, Rose Alvarez (Michelle Aravena) longs for a quiet married life. But her boss/boyfriend, Albert Peterson (Matt Crowle) holds the contract on rock star/Army inductee Conrad Birdie (Jason Michael Evans), and wants to get another hit single out before his protege goes in for basic training. Albert's dragon-lady mother, Mae (Catherine Smitko), does everything she can to discourage the romance, hitting especially hard on Rose's Latina heritage.

Rose helps Albert come up with a gimmick sure to appeal to "The Ed Sullivan Show" — they'll find a teenage girl from one of the many Conrad Birdie fan clubs, and she will give him, as the song says, "One Last Kiss." (It's doubtful that "Birdie's" creators knew that the real Elvis was already involved with underage Priscilla Presley when the show opened.) Unfortunately, the lucky winner, Kim MacAfee (Leryn Turlington) of Sweet Apple, Ohio, is already pinned to square beau Hugo Peabody (Ryan Stajmiger). And her father Harry (George Andrew Wolff) isn't too pleased about the rock star who has taken over his house for the publicity stunt.

Mader's production attempts to bring in a critique of the growing influence of television through shifting multimedia images on Christopher Ash's set, which gives the Sullivan ode "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" a bit of sardonic heft (especially with Wolff's comically assured performance — a highlight throughout). But this isn't a show that lends itself well to hindsight social critiques. True, some of the ugly xenophobia from Smitko's Mae could be punched up more. But it's best to enjoy "Bye Bye Birdie" on its own rather anodyne terms.

Which isn't to say that Mader's approach lacks smarts or sophistication — far from it. The performances mostly manage to find the sweet spot between playing it straight and winking just enough at the material to remind us that this show is as much a fantasy about conformity and material comfort as anything sold by the "Mad Men" crew. (The movie version of "Birdie" even made a cameo appearance on "Mad Men" when closeted art director Sal Romano filmed a soda commercial aping Ann-Margret's performance.)

Aravena is deliciously sexy, sassy and wistful in all the right proportions. "Shriner's Ballet," in which Rose wows a group of Sweet Apple Shriners, is a fez-popping comic treat. Crowle doesn't quite have the energy of Dick Van Dyke, but he's ingratiating and rubber-limbed enough to stand in those shoes. Evans' endearingly dumb self-absorbed lummox of a rocker provides a blank slate on which impressionable girls can project their budding lusts. And Turlington's Kim, like the production itself, manages to capture sweet naivete without veering into vapidity.

Kerry Reid is a freelance critic.


"Bye Bye Birdie"

3 stars

When: Through March 13

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $45-$60 at 630-530-0111 or