By Britin Haller
The Wick Theatre & Museum Club’s 10th anniversary season is off to a rollicking start with Bye-Bye Birdie, a winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, when it opened on Broadway in 1960. Set in 1958, this popular production showcases legendary music created by the Broadway songwriting duo of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who also penned the opening theme to All in the Family, the iconic 1970s sitcom starring Carroll O’Connor.
We note that because one comic-relief character in Bye-Bye Birdie reminds this reviewer of O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, a bigoted loudmouth whose belief system is so engrained he’ll never change, but who provides just enough vulnerability and humor to make him human.
And therein lies the crux of the story.
Spanish-American Rose (Rosie) Alvarez isn’t happy. Her man, Albert Peterson, is full of unfulfilled career-change promises, and she’s tired of waiting. All she wants to be is an English teacher’s wife, and so when Albert’s biggest (only?) client at his songwriting company gets drafted, Rosie hatches a plan to send Conrad Birdie (think Elvis Presley), off in style, once and for all. If Rosie had her way, it would be buh-bye Birdie forever. But her marrying scheme won’t be easily accomplished because Albert is the mama’s boy of all mama’s boys. “You’re a mama-clutching aspirin-splitting six-foot tower of Jello,” Rosie says to him in one of her best moments.
Mama is Mrs. Mae Peterson, a fur coat, laced-up shoes, and white gloves wearing real piece-of-work, and she has other ideas for her “Sonny Boy.”
On paper, Mama should not be funny, but we laugh in spite of ourselves. Her bias toward her potential daughter-in-law, Rosie, is so strong, Mama resorts to bringing home a well-endowed blonde bimbo for Albert, who is not impressed even when the woman tap-dances and does the splits in her skin-tight leopard pants just for him. Tough crowd…
Meanwhile, in the quaint small town of Sweet
Apple, Ohio, 16-year-old Kim MacAfee, the president of Conrad Birdie’s fan club is called upon by Rosie to be part of the publicity event to end all publicity events. Conrad will bestow a smooch upon the lucky girl in public. At first, Kim’s parents don’t like the idea of their teenage daughter kissing a twenty-something year-old man, but when her father, Harry, finds out they will all be on the Ed Sullivan show, he quickly changes his mind. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo, is unsure of where he stands. “I’m the opposite of jealous. I’m very jealous,” and makes his presence known at the TV show’s taping, attempting to thwart the big event.
By the end of Act One, the story is set in place, but it’s during Act Two, the action really comes alive. A sight gag by Mama in Act Two Scene Two got the biggest laugh of the night. Her other shenanigans, of which there are plenty, received many of the rest, except for Rosie’s biggest moment during “The Shriner’s Ballet,” a wordless dance performed with seven male club-members when she crashes their meeting. It’s a little risqué, but tastefully done to music best described as a snake charmer in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves doing Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk. Special mention to the Shriners with the red hearts who will steal yours.
There are wonderful ensemble numbers from the eye-catching The Telephone Hour to A Healthy Normal American Boy. Rosie and Kim’s One Boy and What Did I Ever See In Him? are stand-outs, as is the barbershop quartet made up of Stephen Eisenwasser, Michael Harper, Izaiah Vincent Scott, and Billy Vitucci.
Other highlights include Rosie’s semi-tango with ensemble dancers Jawan Hayes and Izaiah Vincent Scott, her soft-shoe matching-attire number with Albert, the MacAfee’s tribute to Ed Sullivan, and the classic Put on a Happy Face where Albert tap-dances marionette-style with the Sad Girls.
Accolades must go to the following cast and crew:
Broadway’s Jeremy Benton as Albert has a soothing voice, and his Baby, Talk to Me ballad is sweet. Anyone close to the stage may have caught a playful wink by him to Rosie, which may or may not have been in the script. His emotions are palpable, and you really feel his struggle between the woman who birthed him, and the woman he truly loves.
Kim MacAfee is played by Alexandra Van Hasselt, who was recently nominated for a Carbonell Award for her Actor’s Playhouse portrayal of Margo Crawford in Bright Star. Her song, How Lovely to be a Woman, performed in her pink Barbie bedroom complete with Conrad Birdie posters, shows off Alexandra’s lovely high-soprano vibrato.
Dalia Aleman as Doris MacAfee is ideal in her Betty Crocker heels and aprons in her era-appropriate green-themed kitchen, but it’s Ben Sandomir as her husband, (and Kim’s dad,) Harry MacAfee, people sit up for. Harry is the self-imposed Rodney Dangerfield of his day. To his son, Harry says, “You’re a child. What good is respect from a child?” Sandomir is a crowd favorite for good reason.
Noah Weiss is Randolph MacAfee. This young man will enjoy a long career in show business if he wants it, because he can really belt out a tune.
Las Vegas Elvis impersonator Cole plays Conrad Birdie perfectly. From the moment Cole comes on stage, you can’t take your eyes off him because he’s handsome, yes, but also because something from his toes to his pompadour is always gyrating. If you do close your eyes for a moment, you’ll truly believe it’s Elvis. Even Mama Peterson, and the pearl-clutching mayor’s wife in a hilarious bit, succumb to Conrad’s charms.
Billy Vitucci is the Nathan Lane-looking mayor, and Colleen Pagano (related to choreographer Cat) is his wife. They do a lot with small roles. Vitucci is also a stand-out as Maude the saloon owner and one-fourth of the barbershop quartet.
Alexandra Nicole Garcia as Gloria brings the house down with her brief time on stage as Mama’s hilarious love choice for Albert. The song, Swanee River, will never be the same.
Then there’s Mama, the ultimate drama queen with a narrow view of the world. South Florida theatregoers will recognize veteran and multiple award-winning actress (including four Carbonells), Lourelene Snedeker, as Mrs. Mae Peterson. It’s to Snedeker’s credit we love her Archie Bunker-like Mama. Her eyes sparkle with delight as she delivers what is basically a “Just kill me now” speech, something every child has likely heard from their own mother at one point or another, and her physical high-jinks add icing to the cake.
But it’s three-time Carbonell winner Leah Sessa as Rosie Alvarez who ultimately steals the show. Wick audiences loved her as Ado Annie in Oklahoma, and Leah doesn’t disappoint here either as the tough-as-nails woman behind the man who fights for what she wants and refuses to accept second-best. Brash and sassy, but lovable and endearing, Leah fits into Rosie’s skin like it’s her own. No easy feat.
Jesse Worley and Clifford Spulock provide solid sound and lighting respectively, and Kacey D. Koploff’s projection design adds to the fun with backdrops meant to both immerse the audience in the ‘50s decade, and to move the story along.
Costume designer Isabel Rubio’s best work is Conrad’s attire including a gold lame suit, and a grey suede one with a contrasting black shirt. He’s also adorable in pink chiffon and when dressed like the Queen of England. And Kim looks pretty and innocent in a billowy purple dress with a lace corset.
With an extensive New York City and South Florida resume, musical director Bobby Peaco is the real deal, and the catchy melodies may have you tapping your toes long after you leave the theatre.
Choreographer Cat Pagano and Dance Captain Melanie Farber for their creating and implementing a series of “hip-swiveling” moves guaranteed to impress and delight. Their enthusiasm bubbles over.
The show is beautifully directed by Carbonell Award winner and multiple nominee, Norb Joerder, whose Camelot successes include the revival of Robert Goulet as Sir Lancelot and a tour of Australia and Europe with Richard Harris in the role, and numerous other Broadway triumphs. In an adorable bit of foreshadowing, as a kid living in St. Louis, Joerder’s older sister was president of their local Elvis Presley Fan Club.
Bye-Bye Birdie is definitely dated, and younger people may not get some of the references (Peter Lawford, anyone?), but there’s something comforting in a show that been playing to big crowds for over 50 years. At intermission, one audience member in the lobby said to her companion, “I didn’t remember how corny it is.” “Yes,” her friend answered, “but it’s a good corny.”
It certainly is.
Bye-Bye Birdie plays through December 24 at The Wick Theatre 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Productions are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time approximately 125 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets starting at $79 for weekday matinees, $94 for weekend matinees, and $109 for evening performances. Call 561-995-2333, or visit thewick.org.
Britin Haller is the Senior Editor for Charade Media. Her latest novel is Dumpster Dying by Michelle Bennington, available where books are sold. Find Britin across social media and at Charadebooks.com