Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE at Hale Centre Theatre

The production runs through July 1st at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert, AZ.

By: May. 21, 2023
Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE at Hale Centre Theatre

Guest Contributor David Appleford rocks and rolls in this upbeat review of Hale Centre Theatre's production of BYE BYE BIRDIE.

There are two ways to view the new colorful, high-energy production of the hugely popular 1960 musical BYE BYE BIRDIE, now playing at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until July 1. The first and most obvious way is to simply sit back and enjoy it as it is; a comedic, pleasantly tuneful though somewhat dated fictional account of a real event. The second way is far more satisfying.

Look at things through the prism of time travel, cast your minds back sixty-three years to when the show was first produced, then view everything that unfolds as though it was present-day - which it was when the show originally appeared. What may initially seem culturally quaint when seen through one lens suddenly takes on something quite different once you make that slight viewing adjustment.

Inspired by Elvis Presley's real-life army induction, when teenage pop/rock idol Conrad Birdie (Matthew Dodaro) is drafted, his New York manager and songwriter, Albert (Tyler Brigmone) frets that both his and Conrad's music careers are over. But with help from his business partner and girlfriend, Rose (Michala Montaño), the idea for a nationwide television event to be broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show is formed. One teenage girl from middle America will win one last kiss from Conrad live on national television, along with a new song written by Albert which, given the circumstances and endless publicity of Conrad's induction, is expected to be a massive chart hit with the kids.

BYE BYE BIRDIE may not be full of caustic, biting wit, but it is a satire - a gentle, finger-prodding satirical look at an American generation gap during a specific time in the country's development. If all you know of BYE BYE BIRDIE is the 1963 film, then you missed the central focus of what the show is really about; the emergence of the independence-seeking American teenager in the late fifties and the befuddlement of the parents trying to understand them and failing.

Of course, you could say that every generation throughout history re-enacts the same conflicts faced between kids and their parents, but there was something considerably different about the dynamics of middle-class family life in America during the period in which BYE BYE BIRDIE takes place. The show, and this new Hale Centre Theatre production, get things right.

As with all productions mounted at Hale, the challenge for director/choreographer Cambrian James is how to transpose the popular musical from a traditional proscenium arch presentation into a theatre-in-the-round setting. All four sides of a theatre audience need to view the show without the feeling that half of the cast have their backs to them.

From years of experience - and presumably, lessons learned from past errors and mistakes - together both Hale Centre Theatre and Cambrian James have the formula right, nicely illustrated almost immediately in this production when the entire teenage population of Sweet Apple is on the phone, blocking all incoming calls from the rest of the country. Instead of a colorful series of blocks mounted together housing each teenager on the phone during 'The Telephone Hour,' James has the young cast pull their phone booths on wheels around the stage, choreographed with a precision that not only stops everyone from bumping into each other but succeeds in allowing all four sides of the house to see what's going on throughout the crowd-pleasing scene without missing any of the action.

Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE at Hale Centre Theatre

Because the production premiered in 1960, BYE BYE BIRDIE is usually described as a sixties musical, but it's not. After all, the events occurring in the show are based on something that happened in '58. Plus, the musical was developed and written during the following several months. As with most generations, the first few years of a new decade tend to be overlapped by the old one. Culturally speaking, the sixties didn't start until '63, indicating there is nothing 1960s about BYE BYE BIRDIE at all, something you can easily see in Hale Theatre's overall production design.

All of Tia Hawkes' costumes for both the adults and the teenage high-schoolers, including poodle skirts and sneakers for the girls, and light, diamond-patterned sweaters and bow-ties for the teenage boys, are late fifties period-appropriate. However, dressing Conrad Birdie in a sparkling dark suit for his rock 'n roll entrance in small-town America doesn't work as visually well as the traditional glittering gold the character traditionally wears. It's meant to emulate Elvis Presley's 1958 gold disc album, issued before he was drafted, which is what is about to happen to Conrad.

Another misconception, often by publicity departments when promoting the show, is that BYE BYE BIRDIE is the first rock musical. True, there are two pop/rock songs that Birdie sings with his electric guitar - 'Honestly Sincere,' and 'One Last Kiss' - but they're more parodies of the style than the real thing. At its heart, the score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams - their first - is perfectly old-fashioned Broadway, which is why radio and TV stations of the day would often play 'Kids' in their variety show broadcasts, while night club singers and crooners have enhanced their careers by incorporating 'A Lot of Living To Do' and 'Put On A Happy Face' in their acts.

Curiously, 'Put On A Happy Face' was going to be cut from the show before opening. Michael Stewart, who wrote the book, had nowhere to place the song, but it was Dick Van Dyke himself, the original Broadway Albert, who asked that it be given to him. His character had no solos in the first act and it would give Albert something musically to do. Ironically, even though the song doesn't further the plot - if it was removed, it would alter nothing in the story - 'Put On A Happy Face' became the standout, popular hit of the show. In Hale's production, Tyler Brignone's Albert grabs the piece with both hands. With the teenagers eagerly following the agile, high-energy performer around the Hale stage, making things look as though Hamlin was temporarily missing its pied-piper, Brignone turns the scene into one of the most pleasant and thoroughly engaging sequences of the production.

Though there's an absence of backdrops and theatre flats for this theatre-in-the-round presentation, Hale's technical production values remain high, with a clear, crisp sound design from Boyd Cluff, aided by an ever-changing array of bright colors from Ryan Terry's lighting.

In addition to the cast members already mentioned, both Hector Coris and Kathleen Richards as the eternally bemused parents consistently amuse. When Dad discovers he'll be on The Ed Sullivan Show, his sudden change of attitude from anger to delight is an audience belly laugh. Brie Wadsworth-Gates as their daughter Kim, the lucky girl who'll be on the receiving end of Conrad's last kiss, nicely captures the flavor of a teenage high-schooler in conflicted love with boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Truman Regard-Whipple) while loving the attention she's currently getting as the girl who'll be kissed on national TV by a rock star. Plus, each moment she appears, Gina Guarino as Albert's dominating show-biz mother Mae Peterson proves to be a comic scene-stealer.

But it's Albert's girlfriend, Michala Montaño's Rosie you'll remember the most. From her opening song, 'An English Teacher,' sung with the kind of theatrically trained, lower register clarity that makes you immediately sit up and pay attention, beyond a doubt, this production of BYE BYE BIRDIE is Montaño's show.

Hale Centre Theatre ~ Click Here ~ 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert, AZ ~ 480-497-1181

Graphic and photo credit to Hale Centre Theatre


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