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“Bye Bye Birdie”

Goodspeed Opera House

 

“Bye Bye Birdie,” which Goodspeed Opera House is currently presenting in a very enjoyable production, is one of the real classics of the Golden Age of musical theatre.  With a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and a book by Michael Stewart, it is safe to say that “Bye Bye Birdie” is a perennial musical that has been produced continuously since it first opened in 1960, and will no doubt be staged in productions from now until the foreseeable future.

I bring all this up, because, somewhat disconcertingly, director Jenn Thompson has decided to fiddle with the material, making changes that sometimes work great and other times don’t work nearly as well.  It is a real tribute to how bright and how much fun this production of “Bye Bye Birdie” is at Goodspeed Opera House that this musical, despite the changes, still pretty much works like a charm.  Of course, for those who are less of a musical theatre purist than me, the alterations to the show may go unnoticed.  Still, whatever your level of familiarity with the show, Goodspeed Opera House’s “Bye Bye Birdie” ranks as a real crowd-pleaser.

One of the chief merits of the show is definitely the extremely well-chosen cast.  Above all, there is Janet Dacal, in the Chita Rivera role of Rose Alvarez.  I had previously seen Janet Dacal in the short-lived musical “Wonderland” and I thought that she was a good performer.  However, in “Bye Bye Birdie,” she absolutely shines.  From her first song, “An English Teacher” (my favorite song in the show) to the next to closing number, “Rosie,” Dacal is really dynamite, singing all her songs with spice and personality, and she is also pretty great in her acting and dancing abilities.  Indeed, Goodspeed Opera House has a real winner in Janet Dacal’s performance as Rose.

This is not to say, though, that the other leads are any less effective.  As Albert Peterson, the Dick Van Dyke part, George Merrick is a good match for Janet Dacal.  He puts over his big numbers, “Put on a Happy Face” and “Rosie” and the much lesser known (but still pleasurable) “Baby, Talk to Me,” wonderfully well and he is very funny in his somewhat milquetoast role.

Also, Goodspeed Opera House could not have found a better Conrad Birdie than Rhett Guter.  He is quite believable as the kind of idol that young girls would scream over, and both his “One Last Kiss” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” songs have the kind of sexual energy needed for this role.

As Kim, the girl who has been chosen to get kissed by Conrad Birdie before he goes into the army, Tristen Buettel is a real pleasure and also a breath of fresh air.  As her mother, Donna English is good, though she doesn’t have much to do aside from her singing a portion of the number, “Kids.”  However, Warren Kelley, in the Paul Lynde role of Kim’s father, gets all the laughs in the script and is pretty great in “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.”

As Mae, Albert Peterson’s ultimate guilt-trip inducing mother, Kristine Zbornik may overact the part a bit, but she is often a scream in her scenes, looking somewhat disheveled in her raincoat and scarf over her head, and she brings all the humor out of her role.  Also, in one of the changes to “Bye Bye Birdie” that works great, Mae even gets a song to sing, “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (written for the 1995 television production of this musical), and Kristine Zbornik sings it to the heavens.

In other changes to the show, the title song, “Bye Bye Birdie” (written for the movie version and first sung by Ann-Margaret) has been added to the first act, to give the Conrad Birdie-loving teenage girls another song to sing.  This addition works fairly well, but I was surprised quite a bit that some of the numbers have been presented in a different order than on the original Broadway cast album, and have, at times, been completely reconceived (with “Put on a Happy Face” being the most obvious change).

Still, these slight qualms I have with the alterations made to the musical ultimately matter very little overall.  The multi-colored set, splendidly designed by Tobin Ost, and the period perfect costumes by David Toser add a lot of zip to the production, as does Patricia Wilcox’s lively choreography.  And director Jenn Thompson is pretty terrific in eliciting all the fine performances from her cast and she keeps the show moving at a good clip.  So, my purist feelings aside, this “Bye Bye Birdie” at Goodspeed Opera House should bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.

“Bye Bye Birdie” continues at Goodspeed Opera House in East Hadaam, CT through September 8, 2016.  For tickets, please visit www.goodspeed.org or call the box office at 860-873-8668.

Photo: Janet Dacal (center) and cast

Photo by Diane Sobolewski

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