Taking on one of the largest casts “One More Productions” has boasted in recent memory, on opening night, Director Lorton reminded the audience that this was one of the first productions his then-fledgling company staged, so it has always held a special place for him. Commendably, this very evident in what he’s presented here. Lorton’s pace is fairly rapid and he once again makes imaginative use of “The Gem’s” intimate setting which makes the production numbers seem that much more rich and lavish. In addition, he throws in plenty of awesome surprises throughout–repositioning a number here, adding an unexpected reprise there, all to sensational effect. What’s more, there’s also a fortifying air of realism and credibility permeating through all the on-stage exploits making the net return a lively new take on an old favorite that’s most emphatically NOT your same old ‘same old’! Co-Choreographed by Lorton and Shauna Bradford, the pair have cleverly inundated the proceedings with an abundance of dazzling moves and stylish stepping–often in the simplest or most unpredictable places, performed to their exhilarating fullest by the youthful, energetic and superbly talented cast. Even with the deletion of the (arguably) superfluous “Shriner’s Ballet” it’s a safe bet to even say that this is one of the most dance-filled shows “The Gem” stage has enjoyed in quite a while! Set Designer Wally Huntoon’s sprawling glitter-tinged multi-leveled set renders us view as seen through the lens of a giant vintage jukebox, while Costume Designer Larry Watt’s period costumes are bright, colorful and authentically reminiscent of the decade of Ike, sock-hops, tail-fins on cars and Friday night Canasta. Through them one gets the impression that Watts may even be making a shrewd statement about adolescent exclusivity and inclusion; for instance, when one girl is wearing a plaid skirt, they’re ALL wearing plaid skirts, or whenever one is wearing pastel pedal-pushers, they’re ALL wearing them.
Inspired by real-life events when Rock Legend Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces at the peak of his early super-stardom, and all the adolescent hysteria that surrounded it, “Bye-Bye Birdie” returns to that fateful year of 1958 when news breaks that rock-and-roll idol, “Conrad Birdie” has just been drafted into the U.S. Army. Dispensing with the traditional overture, the action commences immediately with “The Telephone Hour” laying the foundations for the key relationships in the show—that of young Kim MacAfee and her teenage beau, Hugo Peabody as their friends and classmates are set all abuzz with the news that she’s now wearing his “pin” and that the two are ‘going steady’! Then it’s on to the Big Apple where Birdie’s down and out songwriter and agent, “Albert Peterson’, and Albert’s girlfriend and devoted secretary “Rosie Alvarez”, hatch a plan for a farewell performance to take place on none other than the most popular variety program on TV, “The Ed Sullivan Show”!
Hoping that Conrad can record one last hit and save his fledgling company “Al-Mae-Lou Records” (Al for ‘Albert”, “Mae” for his mother—the company’s chief investor, and “Lou”, who we learn, is in deference to Mae’s dearly departed dog,) Albert writes a guaranteed hit titled “One Last Kiss” for the show. To cap off the performance, Birdie will actually bestow ‘one-last-kiss’ on national television to one very special teenage fan named “Kim MacAfee”–an avid member of “The Conrad Birdie Fan Club” from the quintessential small, middle American town, “Sweet Apple”, Ohio. Initially, the scheme seems to (mostly) go according to plan, but no one has counted on the jealous wrath of Kim’s boyfriend, “Hugo”, her star struck family (including her overbearing hot-head of a father,) Albert’s own domineering and manipulative mother who ‘just happens’ to show up in town, or the outrageous adoration that borders on zealotry from Birdie’s many teenage admirers!
Conveying a kind of easy-going, grown-up ‘boy-next-door’ amiability, Chris Peduzzi stars as would-be songwriter, “Albert Peterson”. Part Kevin Costner, part Jimmy Stewart he adeptly has us rooting for him right from the start, and although it doesn’t occur until almost half-way through the first act, his rendition of the classic “Put On A Happy Face” furnishes an exceptional introduction to his estimable vocal abilities. This in turn includes a smart and snappy tap interlude as Albert leads several of Birdie’s admirers in a dapper homage to the show’s original Director (and the driving force behind “Bye Bye Birdie”) Gower Champion. Later, he continues to charm with “Baby Talk To Me” which also demonstrates his dexterity with expressively interpreting a song . Right by his side practically every step, twist, twirl and pivot of the way, is Adriana Sanchez as his secretary/girlfriend, “Rose Alvarez”. Hers really is the character who moves the show forward as much of the plot—especially during the second act–unfolds as a kind of big theatrical “chase scene” and it’s “Rose” who keeps things rolling swiftly along; hence with much of the action resting firmly her on her very capable shoulders, Ms. Sanchez succeeds and even prevails, brilliantly! Her execution of “An English Teacher” is lyrical and likeable early on, while after intermission, her rendition of the defiant “What Did I Ever See In Him?!” is a formidable way to launch Act Two. Then, her ultimate ‘declaration of independence”—“Spanish Rose” has thrillingly been re-worked from its initial role preceding a second act ballet, into a far more effective 11 O’ Clock number for Ms. Sanchez—and she genuinely shines in it’s new, more dynamic light! (“I’m just a Spanish tamale according to Mae,” she sings;” right off the boat from the tropics far, far, away…Which is kind of funny since where I come from is Allentown, P.A.!”) Together with Peduzzi, they cap off the goings-on pleasingly with the conciliatory (and delectably hummable) number “Rosie”–conferred as a convivial soft-shoe dance that blossoms into a gentle romantic waltz.
Meanwhile, Andrea Goldin as Albert’s mink-coated “martyr in her own mind” mother, “Mrs. Mae Peterson” practically steals the show providing plenty of huge laughs and tossing off some outrageously hysterical throw-away lines! “You’re just like your father” she accuses Albert at one point, “—you’ll marry anything!” Her witty vaudeville-styled ‘dirge’, “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” exhibits her pristine comic timing, setting a new gold standard for humorous highlights in a show practically fueled by such monumental mirthful moments: “That’s it, I’m ready to go and I don’t want you to spend a cent,” she blusters; “Fancy funerals are for rich people….just wrap me in a flag and throw me in the river–on Mother’s Day!” Not to be over-looked either is Hayden Mangum as Kim’s brash boyfriend “Hugo Peabody”. He also evidences terrific appeal in a role that could easily appear unsympathetic; however, thanks to Mangum’s high-spirited brand of magnetism and (doubtlessly for more than a few, a slightly red-faced) relatability “Hugo” similarly has us square in his corner, while Carmen Tunis as The Mayor—in this production cast as a ‘just this side of seasoned’ “Cougar” who nonetheless, is still youthful enough to be intoxicated by young Conrad’s boyish charisma and unsullied (if somewhat sullen) sex-appeal. Kieara Williams is likewise tops (with a top-flight voice to match) as Kim’s best friend “Ursula Merkle”. The title number, (written expressly for the 1963 film and its star, Ann Margaret) makes for another welcome inclusion here, where it’s performed by the young ladies of Birdie’s “Sweet Apple” fan club. Delightfully headed by Ms. Williams, she reveals some pretty powerful notes of her own before leading the group in some five-star worthy harmonizing.