Original Article: http://www.aroundthetownchicago.com/theatre-reviews/bye-bye-birdie/
★★★★★When a theater wants to end its season with a bang, it seems they go back in history and find one of the oldies but goodies that theater audiences adore. One of these Musical Theater treasures is "Bye Bye Birdie" with a clever book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams. The play takes place in a different time- a time when people did not have to lock up their homes and cars. A time when everyone knew their neighbors, and families gathered together on a Sunday evening, either after dinner or perhaps even during dinner to watch television. Yes, there was television in the 1950's, when "Birdie" took place, albeit, not giant screen, mostly black and white and with only a few channels to watch. On a Sunday evening it was The Ed Sullivan Show, what we called a variety show back in the day. The host, Mr. Ed Sullivan , was a columnist for a New York Newspaper. NOTE: how many of you remember black and white tv? How many of you remember snack tables? The snack table was used to enjoy a meal in the living room while watching the black and white tv.
This story is about a rock and roll star, Conrad Birdie (played to perfection by Jason Michael Evans), who has been drafted into the army. Those of you who recall the story of Elvis Presley will understand this with great clarity. His manager, Albert Peterson (Matt Crowle in another break-out performances, and can he tap dance?), in order to keep his recording label alive, stages a special event; They will select one of Conrad's fans to be the one to kiss him as he goes off to the army. This plan was devised by Albert's secretary/assistant/girlfriend, Rose Alvarez (an amazing song and dance actress- Michelle Aravena, who was stunning in Drury Lane's "West Side Story" last year).
The teen-age girl is selected. Her name is Kim MacAfee, of Sweet Apple, Ohio. Kim (deftly handled by Leryn Turlington) has just been "pinned"(not sure if they do that anymore either-but it was "going steady") to Hugo Peabody (an adorable performance by Ryan Stajmiger). This is where the story goes. The entire town is swept away by being the town with the girl selected to be on The Ed Sullivan Show, which means all of America will now be aware of Sweet Apple! Cleverly directed and swiftly choreographed by Tammy Mader, this play makes us forget things like computers and cell phones and texting for a little more than two hours (two hours and fifteen minutes with a 15 minute intermission). Theater is supposed to be diversion and this production will allow you to forget everything in the outside world. Once you enter Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace , you are heading back in time- to an America that was different, and a simpler life, with less stress. Some might even call it a blast from the past with the music as well.
Just think of some of the music that came from this Tony Award winning show: "Put On A Happy Face", "Kids", "A Lot Of Livin' To Do", "One Last Kiss" and many more. While some of the songs are only to propel the story, many have been used in commercials and as background music in other productions and films. The "Telephone Hour" song has also been seen in other uses over these many years. This is a show filled with nostalgia and a cast that rips it apart- they are high energy, many taking on the weight of many roles, some kids and some as adults. Kim's friend Ursula Merkle (Stephanie Hansen is a hoot) and the Teen Trio (Kim Green, Laura Savage and Jenna Schoppe),the teens- Johnson Brock, Amanda Compton Lopresti, Cole Doman, Kim Green, Rhett Guter, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Hannah Rose Nardone, Anthony Norman and Monica Thomas are powerful and the handling of the "Telephone Hour" staging wise, using the revolving stage, worked!
The rest of the MacAfee family, mom and dad and little brother were sheer magic- Harry MacAfee (George Andrew Wolff who continues to show that he has great comic timing to go with his fabulous voice) Brianna Borger as Mrs. MacAfee and little brother Randolph (as in most kids roles, this is shared by Rowan Moxley and Cam Ezell). The town's mayor is handled (along with many other roles) by Chicago favorite Roger Mueller and his wife (who is his wife) the incredible Jill Shellabarger, who faints with the best of them (perhaps the Jeff Awards can do a new category- best fainting in a musical). It is nice to see another Chicago favorite James Rank handling several key roles, and then there is Albert's mother Mae ( the hysterical Catherine Smitko) who is as Jewish a Jewish mother as one could ever be, considering her character's last name is Peterson. Ah, the guilt that she brings to her role! She is as funny a Mae as I have ever seen (and I have seen this play many times over the years). Another character of note is the "sad girl" (played at different performances by Isabelle Roberts and Maya Lou Hlava). Watching her go from sad girl to having a happy face is wonderful and she can truly dance up a storm (Opening Night was Isabelle Roberts).
This is musical comedy at its finest. Yes, it was the 1950's/ 1960's and even though we have a "Jewish Mother" and a "Spanish Rose", none of this was done to hurt or dishonor anyone or any race of people. Mae keeps talking about sending Rose back to wherever she comes from south of the border ( but none of this is treated as if it was Donald Trump saying it). It is all in fun and allows us to watch Ms Aravena show her stuff doing "Spanish Rose" in the second act. Her character also does a great Shriners ballet (very impressive staging Tammy!). As to Mae and her attitude, we have had Jewish mothers in plays and movies for years and find ourselves able to laugh with the character and what they do, instead of at them for doing these things. This is a funny, entertainment! Treat it as same and you will have a ball. Anything other than that, will only hurt you!
What truly impressed me with the staging of this show is that there was no real set. Instead, we had walls that could have projections to hold our attention (Christopher Ash) and some smooth lighting (Charles Cooper). The costumes (Sharon Sachs) were perfect for the times and the sound (Ray Nardelli) was easy to hear. Ben Johnson ( also at the keyboard) led the orchestra of 8 musicians) and the musical direction was handled by Alan Bukowiecki. For me , this play brought back many fond memories. I recall seeing the show in Summit with my good friend Dale Benson and Renee Matthews as the MacAfies. I also recall doing the show myself in Buffalo Grove (where I played Albert Peterson, without the tap dancing (you are very safe Matt). It is a warm and touching show with fund music and under Mader's touch a strong candidate for a few Jeff nominations.