By Barry Reszel
Like a comfortable mug of hot chocolate soothing Chicagoland’s winter chill, Drury Lane Theatre’s slice of Americana that is Bye Bye Birdie offers musical theatre patrons a lovely two-hour time travel escape to an easier era gone by.
Director/Choreographer Tammy Mader‘s fine assemblage of talent easily sings, struts and swings its way through the adorably predictable love story (book by Michael Stewart) with a terrific ’50s rock and roll-inspired songbook (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams). Birdie is as much a part of the American musical theatre canon for its 1962 film version starring Ann Margaret and Dick Van Dyke as it is for the 1960 Broadway staging that won the Best Musical Tony.
Inspired by the true story of Elvis Presley heading off to the Army, with the title character’s name taken from Elvis’ musical competitor, Conway Twitty, Bye Bye Birdie actually centers around the love interest between Bridie’s manager, Albert Peterson, and his secretary, Rose Alvarez. It’s Rose’s idea to get Birdie on the “Ed Sullivan Show” by kissing his Sweet Apple, Ohio, fan club president goodbye and simultaneously releasing a new single, “One Last Kiss.” This sets the story in 1959 rural America, and against this backdrop the production satirizes and explores the concepts of teen love, conservative parenting, big city vs. small town, celebrity awe, rock and roll and core values. A detailed synopsis and production history may be read here.
Magnificent physical comedic acting by Matthew Crowle (as Albert Peterson) well complements latina caliente Michelle Aravena (Rose Alvarez). Hers is a welcome return to Drury Lane after winning last year’s Jeff Award for her depiction of Anita in the production of West Side Story. The character’s panache and Aravena’s magnificent dancing ability make Rose the leading player who brings out the laughter and emotion in scenes with mama’s boy Albert and Mama Mae Peterson (wonderfully played by Catherine Smitko).
Jason Michael Evans is a handsomely pouty Conrad Birdie with a glorious voice. Young ingenue Leryn Turlington adorably portrays sweet-voiced Kim MacAfee (fan club president) while George Andrew Wolfe gets every last laugh out of playing her father. The large, highly energetic ensemble is characterized by Laura Savage doing the splits.
If there’s an unfulfilled wish in the staging, it’s for greater use of this venue’s ample height to show off the 30-member cast’s exquisite dance skills. And yet, performance highlights abound.
Fresh staging of teens’ “The Telephone Hour,” Crowle’s delightful rendition of “Put on a Happy Face,” Evans’ “One Last Kiss,” Aravena’s entire second act (particularly the Shriners’ scene) and the cast’s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” are all superb.
Sharon Sachs‘ psychedelic period costuming and Christopher Ash‘s nostalgic set design are lovely accompaniments to Drury Lane’s consistently excellent live music (orchestrations by Matt Aument, music direction by Alan Bukowiecki).
If Bye Bye Birdie offers a little less depth than similar period pieces Hairspray, playing down the street at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, or even Grease, live on television, Jan. 31, patrons should generously forgive.
Because Drury Lane’s Birdie offers a plethora of reasons to come in from the cold and sip this nostalgic concoction.
Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, presents “Bye Bye Birdie” through March 13. Tickets ($45 – $60) are available by phone at 630-530-0111 or online here.