By PR Levey
“Bye Bye Birdie” is practically a rite of passage in the world of high school musicals. It’s hard to believe, but there are people in their 70's now who were in their high school productions of “Birdie,” and today, teens all over the world are still putting on their poodle skirts or slicking back their hair to take the trip to Sweet Apple, Ohio. Now it’s Irvington Conservatory Theatre’s turn to bring this beloved, iconic musical to the stage, performing at Valhalla Theatre in Fremont, March 7-23.
This smartly-designed production is both an homage to, and a comment on the mythical idyllic life of teens in small town America in the 1950s. Blending distinctly 21st-century technology, like robotic lighting and big-screen video, with the familiar ‘50s look gives the production a fresh, modern feel. The open sets are modular, multi-level, and a sleek silver, with delightful vintage furniture and props popping in and out to create a typical 50s kitchen, a small-town Tiki bar, or a perfect “Mad Men” New York office. Irvington’s production is sophisticated and cheeky. Video clips, which intermingle historic footage with additional material from the cast, occasionally throw jarring images at us to remind us that the nostalgic 1950s were, in retrospect, a pretty scary time.
Nothing is scary in Sweet Apple, though, and the beloved story of fifteen year old Kim MacAfee (winsome and perfectly-cast senior Katie Kelly, most recently seen at Irvington in The Diviners), who just got “pinned” to the wonderfully dorky Hugo Peabody (freshman Tim Sanders, who audiences may remember as Huck Finn in StarStruck Theatre’s Tom Sawyer last year) learning that she’s just been chosen at random to be kissed on national television by teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie. Conrad’s been drafted into the army, and his songwriter, Albert Peterson, at the insistence of his longtime, long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Rosie Alvarez, has written a farewell song for Conrad. The song is intended to be the ticket out of show business and into normal married life for Rosie and Albert. However, nothing goes as planned: Hugo’s jealous, Rosie is frustrated with Albert’s undying devotion to his overbearing mother, and Conrad and Kim long for a fling before settling down.
Robert Ritchie is engaging as Albert Peterson, a pleasant-voiced dreamer who’s painfully henpecked by two women—he’s a man with a good heart and no spine to hold it up. As Rosie, Jennica Christman is an inspired choice. She represents everything that women were fighting for at the time – and to this day -- in a single character. She’s a scorned woman, a career woman, an ethnic minority, and a single woman in a man’s world, and she deals with every one of these issues in the space of two hours. Without a hint of the abrasiveness or desperation seen in other Rosies, Jennica Christman shines, even through material which modern audiences may find politically incorrect.
Director Scott Di Lorenzo found a dream of a Conrad Birdie in Gabriel Block. Block does not list a great deal of theatre experience in his bio, but you’d never know it from his performance. His presence is electrifying, and his smile works its magic all the way to the back row. His intensity will cause some sweaty palms in the audience.
Other standouts include Savannah Riddle as Ursula, the over-the-top fangirl friend of Kim’s, Kaeo Tiwanek-Finkes, who plays Mr. MacAfee without trying to do a Paul Lynde impression and still makes him funny, 14-year-old Molly O’Donnell, who doesn’t look a day over 28, camping her way through the role of Gloria Rasputin, and Lauren D’Ambrosio as Mrs. Mae Peterson, Albert’s mother, who brings down the house in the second act with her number (which was added to the show for the Broadway revival a few years ago) “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
Irvington’s production boasts a strong ensemble, and they have an unusual plethora of talented boys to round out the cast. The girls hold their own, too, with lovely harmonies one moment and wild screams the next. Director Di Lorenzo has wisely kept the screaming to the bare minimum.
The young directing team of Di Lorenzo, and husband and wife team of Jennifer and Chris Olson as vocal director and choreographer, respectively, have a lot to be proud of. They’ve breathed some freshness into a chestnut of a show that could easily become a parody of itself. Along with musical director Charlie Rodda and his enormous, 30+ piece onstage orchestra (an innovative feat in itself) it’s possible to get excited about “Bye Bye Birdie” again.
Bye Bye Birdie performs at Irvington High School’s Valhalla Theatre March 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, and 23. Thursday-Saturday curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2:00. Ticket prices range from $12-$20; all seats on Thursday evenings are $10. For more information, see www.irvingtondrama.com.