Screaming, writhing masses of teenage girls clutch at a young heartthrob as he croons his way through the crowd, his every move inciting a chaotic explosion of adolescent hormones. You might think it’s a Justin Bieber concert, but it’s actually W.T. Woodson’s lively production of Bye, Bye, Birdie.
Bye, Bye, Birdie, created in 1960 by Michael Stewart, Lee Adams, Charles Strouse, is a musical satire commenting on the society of the time in which it was written. It centers on music agent Albert Peterson and his girlfriend Rose Alvarez. After Albert’s client, teen sensation Conrad Birdie, gets drafted, Albert decides to write one last hit song, pay off his debts, and become an English teacher like he (and Rose) always wanted. They travel to Ohio, where Conrad is set to kiss a fan, Kim MacAfee, on television. However, complications arise, as they are sure to do with an overbearing mother, relationship problems, and jealous “steadies” in the mix.
Rose and Albert, portrayed by Paula Lavalle and Josh Reiter, carried the show with talent and enthusiasm. Josh displayed impressive vocal chops and great comedic timing in numbers such as “Put on a Happy Face,” where he used clownish moves and cartoonish facial expressions to put a smile on the audience’s faces as well as the characters’ faces. Paula took on Rose’s emotional journey from bedraggled “Rosie” to vivacious “Spanish Rose” with flair, her wonderful voice displayed in songs including “An English Teacher” and “Spanish Rose.”
However, what truly made the show was the energy and commitment of the the supporting actors and the ensemble. Several people stood out, and none more than Faith Johnson, who caused the audience innumerable bouts of laughter as the guilt-tripping, melodramatic Mrs. Mae Peterson, Albert’s mother. Using a brusque voice and a slowed-down physicality, she perfectly embodied the overbearing mother stereotype with hilarious results. Other standouts included Ursula Merkle (Emily Bubeck) and Hugo Peabody (Jacob Nelson). Emily’s frantic swooning over Conrad Birdie garnered her audience attention even in group scenes, and Jacob’s delightful awkwardness was a brilliant acting choice in contrast with the suave Conrad Birdie (Gilbert Louis Braun III).
The members of the ensemble, particularly those in the Teen Chorus, brought life to the show every time they stepped on the stage. “The Telephone Hour,” choreographed by Lara Taylor, was an especially vivacious number, with simple but effective dance moves. Also choreographed by Lara Taylor was the “Hundred Ways Ballet,” a unique though slightly long addition to the show which featured Bryce Menard and Ms. Taylor herself in a beautiful display of dancing prowess.
The scene changes were smooth, along with the understated yet effective sound and lighting. The set was minimalist, and while the simple look may have detracted from some scenes, to most it contributed a fresh feel and room for movement. The costumes were bright and true to the time period, and they did a good job of distinguishing teens from adults.
Overall, despite slight problems with enunciation and character commitment, Woodson’s production of Bye, Bye, Birdie was skillfully put together and a delight to watch. As teens skipped through the aisles and danced their way across the stage, you couldn’t help but be absorbed into their world. The cast’s joy in performing was clearly evident and extremely infectious, leaving the audience fully entertained and craving more.