A Bye-Bye Too Good To Be Bye-Bye

Bye-Bye Birdie (Cabrillo Music Theatre)Cabrillo UserpicLast night, at the Cabrillo Music Theatre’s (FB) penultimate performance of “Bye Bye Birdie“, the artistic director of Cabrillo, Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB) spoke about how this may be Cabrillo’s final show if they don’t reach their fundraising goal (more on that at the end of the write-up). That would be a great loss — Cabrillo has been on a roll this season with great shows, and their production of “Bye Bye Birdie” was the excellent topper to a great season. One way to help them is to buy tickets, so you’ve got the last matinee today to catch! The show is well worth seeing. Here are a few of my thoughts why…

Bye Bye Birdie” is an interesting show. The first Broadway musical of many musicals by the songwriting team of Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics), it was one of only two to be stellar successes and have a long life (the other was “Annie“). It is also one of only a single handful of musicals for which a sequel (“Bring Back Birdie“) was attempted (two of the others were “Annie” — “Annie 2” and “Annie Warbucks“), and for which the sequel was a notorious failure. The book was by Michael Stewart — his first Broadway musical in a career that included “Hello Dolly“, “Mack and Mabel“, “I Love My Wife“, and “Barnum“. “Bye Bye Birdie” is also one of those musicals that have had few big revivals (unlike equivalent spoofs of the era like “Grease“) — a recent attempt failed badly to recapture the magic. I can posit many reasons — primarily that there are concepts in the book that are increasingly unknown to today’s Boomer and younger audiences, whereas “Grease” builds on the universal high school experience. But when you revisit the show, the story, and the music, you realize that it still can speak to a younger audience whilst being entertaining to all.

How do I know this? Last night, we brought our cousin-who-is-like-a-niece with us. This young woman (14 going on 15) is a rabid boy-band fan, currently into One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer. Speaking to her after the show, she said she could see herself in the behavior of the girls onstage. The reaction of the Birdie Girls to Birdie — well, it is universal in every generation. Her reaction to the show, however, perhaps explains why it has been less successful as well. She asked why there wasn’t more Conrad. Consider: “Grease” is told from the point of view of the kids — the center of the story is Danny and Sandy. Although Conrad Birdie is in the title of “Bye Bye Birdie“, he is not the center of the story. “Bye Bye Birdie” is the love story of Albert and Rosie — those are the characters that see the most growth and change, but who also are more centered in a time that is increasingly foreign to audience’s eyes.

I just realized I haven’t told you what “Bye Bye Birdie” is about. After all, you might not have seen the original show on Broadway in 1960 with Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera (sheesh, this show is as old as I am!), the 1963 movie with Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh, or the 1995 TV remake with Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams (although I should note that both movies make changes to the story from the original version, and the version we saw last night interpolates a few songs from the movies). On its surface, “Bye Bye Birdie” is the story of Elvis leaving for a stint in the Army. Elvis was changed to Conrad Birdie (a parody name of Conrad Twitty), and his “last kiss” of a WAC was changed to a kiss of an fan club member in Sweetwater OH. This fan club member, Kim MacAfee, was just “pinned” (remember what I said about outdated concepts :-)) by her sweetheart, Hugo Peabody. Jealousy ensues between Hugo and Conrad. However, the real story in Birdie is about a different couple: Albert Peterson and Rose Alvarez. Albert is an English major who gave up on a goal of being an English teacher to write songs for, and manage, Conrad Birdie. Rose Alvarez is Albert’s long-suffering (is there any other type) secretary and girlfriend, who sees Birdie’s going into the army as an opportunity to (a) get Albert back to teaching, (b) get Albert out from his mother’s clutches, and (c) solemnize their relationship. As for Albert’s mother, well, she’s the exemplar for passive-aggressive. Rose conceives as the “last kiss” as a way to get Albert out of debt and make something out of Birdie’s leaving. In Sweetwater OH, however, Birdie’s arrival exacerbates Hugo’s jealousy, and Albert’s mother’s arrival (in response to a “go away” note) fractures Rose’s relationship with Albert. This culminates with Hugo punching out Birdie, and Rose breaking up with Albert, live on the Ed Sullivan Show. The second act features Kim and Conrad’s rebellion, and concludes with the appropriate musical theatre reconciliations. Thrown into this entire mix, for extra spice, is Kim’s family — especially her acerbic and cynical father, Harry.

Cabrillo’s execution of this was excellent. I’ll get to the acting in a minute — let’s look at the “general effect” first. Cabrillo excels in large cast musicals with full orchestration — and they hit the target with this one. The large ensemble with lots of kids works well, and the orchestra is a delight. The stage is used well, and the overall impression is that everyone is just having fun with this. A few spot observations:

  • The opening overture sets the mood for the evening. As the orchestra starts, they keep getting interrupted by members of the Birdie fan club singing “I Love You Conrad”. This increases, with the fan club leader eventually taking out the conductor, leading the fan club in the song, and then finishing by leading the orchestra in the end of the overture. I never saw the original cast, and can’t recall seeing any of the tours or local productions, so I don’t know if this is a Cabrillo invention, but it is great.
  • In the second act, there is a quartet that sings in Maude’s Bar for the “Baby, Talk to Me” number. I turned to my wife during this and whispered, “So that’s what happened to Forever Plaid“.
  • The dance in this production is astounding. I think there is more true dance in this musical than any I’ve seen of late — in particular, numbers such as Rose’s unnamed long dance numbers, as well as the Shriner’s Ballet and “Spanish Rose”, the dancing in “Put on a Happy Face”, the dancing in both “Honestly Sincere” and “A Lot of Living to Do”. All of it just spectacular. Credit goes out not only to the dancers, but to John Charron (FB) (Choreographer) and Kai Chubb (FB) (Assistant Choreographer).
  • I liked Cabrillo’s clever interpolation of the movie’s title song, “Bye Bye Birdie” into the opening of Act II, with the youngest generation forming their own fan club (including a fake band with the drums labeled “The Chirp Chirps”) to sing it.
  • The large ensemble was particularly noteworthy during the ensemble dance numbers, as well as in the ensemble “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”. If there were more productions of the show, I would recommend seeing it multiple times so that you can focus on different ensemble members each time. Alas, there’s only one more performance (and I have tickets for a different show at that time).
  • Kudo’s to the director, Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB), for corralling such a large cast and bringing them into a cohesive whole while retaining the fun, for telling the story in such an effective way, and for bringing out great and believable performances in his cast.

Let’s now turn to the cast (and one of the things that make these reviews so long to write, with all the linking I do). In the primary lead positions were Zachary Ford (FB) as Albert Peterson and Michelle Marmolejo (FB) as Rose Alvarez. Ford’s Peterson was an excellent dancer, and excellent comic and singer, and (at least as far as I could tell through my binoculars from the Mezzanine). He wasn’t channeling Dick Van Dyke or Jason Alexander, but did have a touch of the boyish charm of John Stamos (who was in the recent revival). I kept trying to figure out who he reminded me of. The best I could come up with was a cross between Jimmy Fallon and Sean Hayes. This isn’t a bad thing — both have an easygoing comic charm and a pleasant singing voice. As for Ms. Marmolejo, her dancing simply blew me away. She was effortless and joyful, and it was a delight to watch. Her singing and acting weren’t bad either. We’ve seen Ford before, particularly in Pasadena Playhouse’s “Camelot and Colony’s “Brel, and enjoyed him both times. Marmolejo may be new to us; it is unclear if she was in Zumanity when we saw it; she may have been in some of the tours we saw at the Pantages.

In the secondary lead positions were Austin MacPhee/FB as Conrad Birdie and Noelle Marion (FB) as Kim MacAfee. MacPhee’s Birdie toned down the Elvis impersonation (which is a good thing), and captured a more modern teen idol. I kept thinking Justin Bieber, but that’s dated thinking. All I know is that the teen sitting next to me was practically drooling, so he must have been doing something right. Marion’s MacAfee was a strong dancer and performer; her voice seemed a little high to me but was acceptable. Those familiar with the movie might be surprised with the changes in her role in the stage version; the movie had Kim’s role amped up to highlight Ann Margaret.

In what I would characterize as the comic relief positions were Jim J. Bullock (FB) as Harry MacAfee, Celeste Russi as Mae Peterson, and Farley Cadena (FB) as Doris MacAfee. Bullock seemed to be channeling Paul Lynde, the original Harry, in his performance, which wasn’t a bad thing (Wendt came off as too gruff in the 1995 remake). The script seemed to confine his humor until “Kids”, when his ad-libs really shone and were quite funny (and made me wonder if they changed each show). He was also wonderful in the breakfast scene, and delightful in the reaction shots. Russi’s Mama Peterson, as I said before, is the poster-child for Jewish passive-aggression (e.g., “I’m only your mother; put me out with the garbage”). In the original version, she doesn’t even have her own song (this is made fun of in the sequel when her song notes she can only sing three notes); either Cabrillo or the revised licensed script interpolated the “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” number from the 1995 movie, and Russi performed it to perfection. Cadena (a CMT regular)’s Mama MacAfee is written to have a much smaller part, but she was also quite good in her introductory scene and in the breakfast scene.

Before I turn to listing the large ensemble and smaller roles, a few more standouts worthy of mention. Francesca Barletta/FB (as Ursula Merkle) was a remarkable character actor channeling her energy into humor. More importantly (especially if I have the right actress identified), it was great to see a larger actress on stage doing what she did. Such performances inspire the young, and we need more of them. As Randolph MacAfee, Micah Meyers was especially cute as the miniature Birdie in the Act II opening number. Rounding out the large cast were (he takes a deep breath): Harrison Meloeny (FB) (Hugo Peabody), Markus Flanagan (FB) (Mayor Merkle), Tracy Ray Reynolds (FB) (Mayor’s Wife), Emily Albrecht (Judy), Jessica Bernardin/FB (Alice), Savannah Brown/FB (Becky Lynn), Amanda Carr/FB  (1st Sad Girl / Lucille), Maggie Darago (FB) (Margie), Gabi Ditto/FB (Nancy), Natalie Iscovich (FB) (Dottie), Isabella Olivas/FB (Cindy), Jocelyn Quinn/FB (Helen), Ali Rosenstein (FB) (Mary Beth), Jennifer Sanette/FB (Mary Kate), Megan Stonger (FB)  (2nd Sad Girl / Peggy Lee), Alison Teague (FB) (Roberta), Antonia Vivino/FB (Phyllis Ann), Natalia Vivino (FB) (Deborah Sue), Harrison Anderson/FB (Dennis), Michael J. Brown/FB (Franklin / Hugo u/s), Paul Crish/FB (Karl), Josh Ditto (Tommy), Jay Gamboa/FB (Alex), Peter Dallas Lance Gill/FB (Bruce), Cameron Herbst/FB (Otis), Kurt Kemper/FB (Montgomery), Michael Kennedy/FB (Paul), Christopher Reilly/FB (Harvey Johnson), Erin Fagundes (FB) (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Heidi Goodspeed (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Timothy Hearl (FB) (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Gina Howell/FB (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Raymond Mastrovito/FB (Maude / Parent), Anna Montavon (Gloria / Adult Ensemble), Paul Panico/FB (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Leasa Shukiar/FB (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Shannon Smith/FB (Parent/Adult Ensemble), Scott Strauss/FB (Parent/Adult Ensemble), and the kids: Natalie Esposito, Jenna Guerrero, Sam Herbert, Autumn Jessel, Chelsea Larson, Nathaniel Mark, Jade McGlynn, Logan Prince, Emily Salzman, Hayley Shukiar, Ashley Thomas, Abigail May Thompson, and Lilly Victoria Thompson. Guest Shriners were Arryck Adams (FB) and Steve Giboney.

One of the advantages of Cabrillo is the presence of a full orchestra. The orchestral sound at this show was wonderful, thanks to the hard work of Music Director and Conductor Lloyd Cooper (FB) and Orchestra Contractor  Darryl Tanikawa (FB). The orchestra consisted of Gary Rautenberg (FB) (Alto Sax I, Flue, Piccolo, Clarinet);  Darryl Tanikawa (FB) (Alto Sax II, Clarinet I); Ian Dahlberg (FB) (Tenor Sax, Clarinet II); Matt Germaine (Baritone Sax, Bass Clarinet, Clarinet III); Bill Barrett (Trumpet I); Chris Maurer/FB (Trumpet II); Rick Perl (Trombone); Melissa Hendrickson (Horn); Sharon Cooper (Violin I, Cancertmaster); Sally Berman (Violin II); Richard Adkins (Violin III); Rachel Coosaia (Cello); Chris Kimbler (Piano); Pathik Desai (Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Banjo); Shane Harry (Acoustic & Electric Bass); Michael Deutsch(Percussion); and Alan Peck (Set Drums).

Turning to the technical artists. The set design worked well–the scenery was designed by Adam Koch, and rental props were designed by Courtney Strong. The scenery was provided by the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (gone are the days when Cabrillo did their own scenery, it seems). The lighting design by Rand Ryan was effective and worked well; I was surprised that Cabrillo went with a neon sign (but that might have been amortized from the rental). Sound design by Jonathan Burke (FB) was clear and crisp. Christine Gibson was the wardrobe supervisor, using costumes provided by The Theatre Company in Upland CA. Hair and Makeup Design was by Cassie Russek (FB). Gary Mintz was the Technical Director, and Brooke Baldwin/FB was the Production Stage Manager. Cabrillo Music Theatre’s (FB) is under the artistic direction of Lewis Wilkenfeld (FB).

The last performance of “Bye Bye Birdie” is today at 2pm. Hopefully, this post will be up before then. You can get tickets at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Box Office.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Cabrillo is having major financial difficulties. They are trying to raise $250K by the end of the next two weeks; they are about 65% there, and they need to make 80%. They’ve got a $30K match in place. I feel a bit guilty as we didn’t renew our subscription — I just don’t have the desire to see the shows they are doing next season again. But I believe in what Cabrillo is doing, and will toss them another donation to help them out. You should too, as well as supporting their upcoming dance marathon and other fundraising activities such as Lazertag and a Silent Auction.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Still to come today is the annual Operaworks improv show. August starts with “Family Planning” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on 8/2. This is followed by “Buyer and Cellar” at the Mark Taper Forum on 8/9, and “Broadway Bound” at the Odyssey on 8/16 (directed by Jason Alexander). The following weekend we’ll be in Escondido, where there are a number of potential productions… including Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Old Globe, and Pageant” at the Cygnet in Old Town. What they have at the Welk (“Oklahoma“), Patio Theatre (“Fiddler on the Roof“), and Moonlight Stage (“My Fair Lady“) are all retreads. August will end with the aforementioned “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein” at REP East (FB). I’m just starting to fill out September and October — so far, the plans include “The Great Gatsby” at Repertory East (FB), “What I Learned in Paris” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and “Pippin” at the Pantages (FB). November is also shaping up, with dates held for “Big Fish” at Musical Theatre West (FB), “Handle with Care” at The Colony Theatre (FB), the Nottingham Festival, “Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide Club” at REP East (FB), “Kinky Boots” at the Pantages (FB), and “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.