BYE BYE BIRDIE Theater Review
There is a satire about American society in the sixties that depicts young people protesting the draft, the generation gap, the youth rebellion, racism, sexism, hack politicians, media manipulation, celebrity worship, the sexual revolution and the liberating role of rock ‘n’ roll. No, I am not talking about those seminal sixties/seventies flicks such as The Graduate, Medium Cool or Getting Straight. I am, but of course, referring to one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of the second half of the 20th century (and also a popular 1963 movie with an all-star cast): 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie, the Tony Award winner with the book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams, music by Charles Strouse.
Okay, to be sure, Birdie is a gentle, if not genteel, spoof of the American scene, inspired by Elvis Presley’s (being drafted into the U.S. Army in the 1950s.
Okay, to be sure, Birdie is a gentle, if not genteel, spoof of the American scene, inspired by Elvis Presley’s (the play’s eponymous rocker, Conrad Birdie, was portrayed opening night by Matthew Golden) being drafted into the U.S. Army in the 1950s. But in the screen version, teenagers carry picket signs demonstrating against the draft and the song Kids (sung in the movie by a perpetually exasperated Paul Lynde as befuddled Harry MacAfee) perfectly - if humorously - expressed the generational divide that tore America apart later in the decade. Indeed, anthropologist Margaret Mead could have written the number’s lyrics.
Recently, this critic has advised theatergoers in his reviews about mature subject matter that is only suitable for adults, such as A Noise Within’s productions of Jean Genet’s The Maids and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia plus Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby at The Road on Magnolia. However, this Young Stars Theatre company presentation at the Fremont Centre Theatre of Birdie is strictly for the kiddies - although, along with some of the performances, parents and grown up guardians may enjoy the story and songs.
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Indeed, in addition to Kids, the show’s hits include Put On a Happy Face, One Boy, and Conrad’s numbers A Lot of Livin’ to Do, Honestly Sincere and One Last Kiss are arguably as good as most pre-Beatles rock songs. Unfortunately, as the teen idol, Golden doesn’t actually play the guitar onstage and the songs are drably accompanied by a prerecorded tape of what sounded like keyboard muzak, which undercut enjoyment for what’s supposed to be a musical. (And missing in action was one of the film’s loveliest songs, “Everything is Hugo.”)
As its name indicates, the nonprofit Young Stars Theatre company is oriented to children and those in their early teens and this production of Birdie has a double-cast. The so-called “Rock Cast” includes adults, early teens and children, while the “Roll Cast” is all youth. In terms of this “caste” system, I’d recommend the former, which performed on opening night. Standouts in the rather large cast include Tara Cox as Rose Alvarez (although I’m not sure if her character is lampooning Latina stereotypes or embodying them). Tony Prichard is good as the much put upon Harry MacAfee, and Chloe Lesieur, who is cleverly cast as his “son” Randolph, is extremely adorable and a delight to behold. Stacy Toycon - who, according to press notes, first acted professionally in a Birdie production 40 years ago - is quite funny as Albert Peterson’s (Kurt Koehler) overbearing mother Mae, who is stifling and suppressing her sonny boy. But I missed the squeaking shoes Maureen Stapleton wore to repeatedly announce Mae’s appearance in the 1963 movie!
Speaking of which, JayCee Porter portrayed Squeaky Fromme, the Manson Tribeswoman who tried to whack Gerald Ford, in a STELLAR revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1991 Assassins, a musical with an improbable subject: The successful and wannabe murderers of America’s presidents. This superb, chilling production was also performed by young people (although this play about violent maniacs like John Wilkes Booth is not suitable for children) and presented by California State University, Northridge’s theatre department. Although the show closes Oct. 2, it definitely deserves a shout out - as does Dennis Kaye, who wails a mean clarinet from the orchestra pit.
Within a week your peripatetic critic went from would-be Nixon slayer Samuel Byck to Birdie to Verdi at LA Opera. What a movable feast L.A.’s stage scene offers. A roving reviewer’s work is never done!
Bye Bye Birdie is taking place through October 23 on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena, CA 91030. Free parking behind theatre. For tickets: (626)269-3609; www.youngstarstheatre.org/tickets.