Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE at the Haines City Theatre

Runs Thru March 17th.

By: Mar. 02, 2024
Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE at the Haines City Theatre
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Rock n roll music has rarely if ever found a successful home in a Broadway musical.  Putting aside such rock-inspired luminaries as Hair, Rent, Spring Awakening , The Who’s Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rock of Ages, School of Rock, Hedwig and the Angry Inch,  Jagged Little Pill and American Idiot, the American musical just seems too confined to include proper rock where the norm seems to be belting out showtunes  and crooning sweet poppy love songs.  (Singing a real rock song in a Broadway show is like scrawling a Jackson Pollack in the middle of a Hallmark card.)  If you doubt my take on this, then compare any of the first four Led Zeppelin records to Hair, all released around the same time; you’ll probably agree that it’s the difference between leather and leatherette.    

The cause for this is simple: The audiences for rock shows and the audiences for Broadway musicals are universes apart, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when rock was the true music of rebellion instead of the staid mainstream that it would eventually become. The audience for musicals skews much older; when I first saw American Idiot, and I happened to be the youngest audience member (at 60), I compared the experience to watching a death metal band like Cannibal Corpse playing at the Villages.

The first Broadway show to dare introduce aspects of rock, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1957, hit the stage two full years after rock n roll stormed the pop charts with Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.”  And it only included one “rock” song, the almost forgotten “Juvenile Delinquent”; and do we even count that since the singer of it was over fifty (and rock n roll was, and should always be, a younger person’s game)?  In the same year, but several months later, came the Bernstein bombast of West Side Story, which rolled over the world with a rock sensibility in the mold of Blackboard Jungle, but its driving gang numbers seemed closer to brassy jazz than actual rock. 

And then there’s BYE BYE BIRDIE from 1960, which in some ways is the first Broadway musical to seriously dive into the rock n roll river. It features an Elvis-like rock star who, like the real-life King of Rock in 1958, would get inducted into  the army and, in a PR bonanza,  find a girl to share a last kiss before he departs.  Everything about the musical shouts rock n roll, expect for one thing: The music.  BYE BYE BIRDIE  may celebrate and satirize rock gods and their fans, but the music is anything but.  It’s mostly Broadway fluff, with a few jazzy pseudo-rock songs that would probably have some square Sixties kid like Marcia Brady bopping her head while pretending to groove to it.  It’s not rock; it’s not really even jazz; it’s more like elevator muzak with personality and a beat.

But I have a place in my heart for BYE BYE BIRDIE.  If nothing else, it introduced the great Charles Strouse to the world, a composer who would go on to write such works as Annie, Applause, and the theme song to the TV series “All in the Family” (the latter written along with BIRDIE lyricist Lee Adams). And you can’t help but have a good time with a show like BYE BYE BIRDIE, as showcased in the current Haines City Theatre production.  Even when the performance goes awry at times, even when it gets messy on the small stage with so many bodies filling the space like a traffic jam on I-4, and even when several of the vocals are weaker than they should be, it’s still such an enjoyable experience.   There’s such a good vibe at the Haines City Theatre and with the cast of this show, that you forgive any of its shortcomings.

BYE BYE BIRDIE centers around put-upon Albert Peterson, former English teacher whose life changed when he wrote a hit for the biggest rock star on the planet, Conrad Birdie (the name a takeoff on Conway Twitty, rocker-turned-country star).  Albert’s secretary, Rosie Alvarz, is also his girlfriend, much to the displeasure of Albert’s histrionic, racist mother.  With Birdie slated to go into the army, Rosie comes up with the ingenious idea of releasing the hit, “One Last Kiss,” to coincide with Birdie’s last kiss to a fan on “The Ed Sullivan Show” before his departure.  That destined fan, Kim MacAfee, once the president of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club and resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio, is penned to jealous Hugo Peabody and is at odds with her parents, especially her harried, conservative dad. With the kiss slated for national TV exposure, many misunderstandings and much hilarity ensue, all packed with memorable music.

The show only works as a period piece, a wink to a time gone by, though it can’t help but be honestly, sincerely dated.  It contains some terrific songs--including “The Telephone Hour,” “Kids,” “Hymn for a Sunday Evening [Ed Sullivan]” and (especially) “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”--but much of it has not aged well (the entire Rose with the Shriners sequence, for example…although to be fair, the audience laughed quite bit at it on the night I saw it; I, on the other hand, did not). The Haines City Theatre’s production of BYE BYE BIRDIE certainly spotlights the show’s strengths as well as its many weaknesses.

As Albert, Michael Dewolf II has a strong voice, perfect for the radio, and talks in a lightning-fast patter.  He’s a try-hard onstage, and his Albert seems more of a cartoon than a real person at times, but he comes into his own by Act 2.  His “Put on a Happy Face” is charming--one of the most physical renditions of the song I have seen, complete with a penguin waddle (is this a wink to Dick Van Dyke, who originated the role of Albert over 60 years ago and did a similar waddle dance in Mary Poppins?).  He is aided in the song by the wonderful Madeline Abbott, who plays a forlorn Conrad Birdie fan who comes to life thanks to Albert’s prodding of positivity.  Ms. Abbott is a standout, and when she finally smiles, it seems so natural that we, the audience, can’t help but smile back.

The talented Annaliese Bradford is a delightful Rosie who has her moments to shine; she’s wonderful at rolling her eyes and rolling her r’s.  Kristina Marier is a force as Kim; she has a dazzling smile, a true ownership of the stage, and looks like every boy’s dream Prom Queen.  She does an outstanding job in her duet with Bradford--“What Did I Ever See in Him?”--although some of her other songs, especially “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” need to pack more of a punch vocally. 

Jeremiah Pyle as Hugo Peabody looks like he stepped right out of a 1950s sit-com.  Teralyn Mergillano has a terrific scream as Ursula Merkle, current President of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club.  Andrew Martinez has a great voice-crack as Harvey Johnson, and his swooning over Birdie during “Honestly Sincere” was quite funny.  Although I wasn’t a fan of this production’s version of “The Telephone Song,” Bri Stuart’s Alice and Dare Higgins’ Penelope stood out with strong vocals (they were also standouts in all of the ensemble numbers).

Ben Tague as Kim’s father was fun to watch, but I never got a sense of the generational divide in him and those pesky “kids” that he rants about all the time.  Part of this has to do with his Allen Ginsberg beard, which makes him look more like a beatnik of the time and less like a fussy, fuddy-duddy Fifties father.   As his wife, Doris, Stephanie Ackley Taylor has the best facial expressions; she looks like she’s in constant shell shock as the crazy shenanigans swirl around her. Yon Tucker Martinez comes across quite professional as Kim’s bow-tied younger brother, Randolph; my bet is, he probably knows everyone else’s lines of dialogue as well as his own.

The rest of the ensemble includes Wayne Kober, Cheri Kober, Krystalyn Drown, Kirstie Kelly, Alicia Raulerson, Varayla Smith, Michelle Dissler, Madilyn Reed Brown, Emma Sparks (who is also good at playing forlorn), Max Legendary Wells (great name), Matt Norman, Miles Dissler, Mickey Brown, V. Lee Matheny and the energetic Jeremiah Calixte.  That’s a lot of people to fill that tiny stage.

The two best performances in this production belong to Kyle Carothers as Conrad Birdie and Arlene Pijuan as Mae Peterson, Albert’s mother.

The bigger than life, almost sequoia-sized Mr. Carothers plays the hip-wiggling Conrad as devil-may-care, flippant,  laidback; he doesn’t have to try hard, he just has to be. The house could be on fire, but he’s too Fonzie cool to care.  He’s like the animated Johnny Bravo sprung to life. His “Honestly Sincere,” which causes the Sweet Apple townsfolk to seize and faint,  is hilarious. And the show’s best number, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” an ode to the joys of youth, is nicely performed.   It’s good to have a BYE BYE BIRDIE where the actor playing Birdie actually gives a standout performance; I’ve seen other productions where Birdie all but recedes into the background and you have no idea why the girls (and Harvey) are screaming.  Here, Mr. Carothers earns the screams.

Best of the lot is the brave turn by Arlene Pijuan as Mrs. Peterson.  She’s over the top marvelous, and when she enters the stage, it’s as if she becomes a one-woman Vaudeville routine, Totie Fields as a put-upon mom.  Donned in a mink coat, and carrying a mismatch pocketbook, Ms. Pijuan steals the show (you almost want to retitle it Hello Hello Mae). I had always forgotten Mrs. Peterson’s big solo, “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (it’s not in the movie).  But here, I will never forget Ms. Pijuan’s version.  In it, she channels Mama Rose in “Rose’s Turn” and wins the woe-is-ma sweepstakes.  She grabs her breasts, shakes her booty, joyfully chides the audience for not clapping louder for her, in a ballsy, no-holds barred rendition of the song. It’s a breathless delight, a showstopper, and it’s what I remember most as I exited the theater.

The choreography by Zan Raynor, assisted by Harley White, is lively and admirable in its concentration of the dance crazes of the time period.  I particularly like how the dances are separated by generations: The younger folk of Sweet Apple get to try their hands at the Mashed Potato or the Madison, while the older folk get to foxtrot or even kick up their heels in the song “Kids” in a  throwback to the Charleston.  I sometimes wish the dances became more organic, coming from a character’s motivation and not just having them suddenly burst into a dance for seemingly no reason when the music plays, but the spirit of the times certainly comes through.

Guided by director Chris Walsh, the show is not a high-tech affair.  The set is no frills, and the projections work but only add a soupcon. I did enjoy the opening montage and the retro “Let’s Go Out to the Lobby” intermission video.  Angela Brown and Amy Higgins’ costumes seem appropriate for the time, for the most part (I question Mr. MacAfee’s brightly colored morning clothes; I would think he would wear something far more conservative and drab, especially when compared to the younger folk). The pre-recorded music works (music director is Steve Kessley), but sometimes it becomes jarring when the music cuts off before the final fade (this happened several times).

Haines City Theatre has been around since 1981 and now resides in a converted library.  It’s a quaint space, small but with a big heart.  I usually review in the Tampa-St. Petersburg areas, but gladly traveled an hour and twenty-three minutes to see HCT’s BYE BYE BIRDIE.  Even with the several issues with the production and with the show itself, I smiled throughout it, having a great time.  And that’s what BYE BYE BIRDIE is all about: Fun and having a great time.  It was certainly worth the drive.

HCT’S BYE BYE BIRDIE runs thru March 17th. 

Photo Credit: Chris Walsh.