It’s 1958 all over again in CLOSBC’s picture-perfect revival of the rock-n-rollin’ Broadway classic Bye Bye Birdie, with L.A. favorites John Bisom and Natalie Nucci giving New York originals Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera a run for their money in stellar triple-threat performances. Director-choreographer extraordinaire Dan Mojica once again works his magic in bringing to finger-snappin’ toe-tappin’ life the Elvis Presley-gets-drafted-inspired book by Michael Stewart and the oh-so-memorable songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams.  

Boomers with good memories will recall how Presley’s 1958 induction into the U.S. Army inspired mass hysteria among his teeny-bopper fans. The same “oh no, it can’t be true” reaction is felt in Bye Bye Birdie when fictional Conrad Birdie, beloved by teen girls across the U.S.A., gets his draft notice, a reaction shared by songwriter Albert Peterson and longtime fiancée Rose Alvarez, who fear the loss of their biggest moneymaker.  Then Rose comes up with a super-duper publicity stunt to make up for the Birdie bucks which Almaelou Music (named after Albert, his mother Mae, and deceased pooch Lou) will be losing while Birdie does his military service.  (Rose does have an ulterior motive, but that’s another story.)  Albert will write one last Birdie hit, entitled appropriately “One Last Kiss,” and Birdie will bestow said kiss on a member of his teen girl fan club selected at random.

It’s easy enough for Albert to pick a name.  Trouble is, Albert can’t get through to 15-year-old Kim MacAfee to give her the good news that she’s to be the lucky kissee.  Kim’s just been pinned by her boyfriend Hugo Peabody, and the phone lines of Sweet Apple, Ohio are abuzz with the news, in the now classic “Telephone Hour.”  Remember this?

“Hi, Nancy! Hi, Helen! What’s the story, morning glory? What’s the tale, nightingale? Tell me quick about Hugo and Kim!”

Soon though, the MacAfee family gets the thrilling news and are even more thrilled when they learn that the entire proceedings will be televised on none other than The Ed Sullivan Show! Musical cue (with choir backup): “How could any fam’ly be half as fortunate as we? We’ll be coast to coast, With our fav’rite host, Ed Sullivan.”

Bye Bye Birdie, celebrating the 48th Anniversary of its Broadway premiere, is of the bygone era in which nearly every one of its dozen and a half songs has become, if not a standard, then at least instantly recognizable and sing-along-able. Hits like “Put On A Happy Face,” “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” and “One Boy” have been covered by just about every singer in the book, but work even better in the context of the original show, especially with a director-choreographer like Mojica at the helm.

“Happy Face” has song-and-dance whiz Bisom showing off his multi-talents in an attempt to cheer up “sad girls” Jennifer Brasuell, Katie Deshan, Jasmine Ejan, Courtney Krieger, Stefanie Miller, and Leslie Stevens, who just can’t bear the thought of a world without Birdie. “A Lot Of Livin’” has Birdie, Kim, and Hugo off for an exciting night on the town, and “One Boy” gives Kim a chance to do some female-bonding with Rose.

Mojica’s spiffy staging of “Telephone Hour” has the stage gradually filling with “teens” (the sensational ensembleare about a decade or two beyond their teen years, but what the heck) on boxes, on ladders, and even popping out high above and outside the proscenium, and features a hilarious nerdy turn by the always adorable Travis Davidson as the cracking-voiced Harvey Johnson.

“Healthy Normal American Boy” has Albert and Rose attempting to convince reporters Jordan Delp, Cecily Gish, Victor Hernandez, and Samantha Mills that Birdie is not a heavy-drinking would-be draft dodger who gave an 18-carat engagement ring to a married Hollywood starlet.  “Hymn For A Sunday Evening” allows John Martin, as Kim’s harried dad Harry MacAfee, to do his very best Paul Lynde and sell “Ed, I love you!” as well as anyone since Broadway/film original Lynde, joined in four-part harmony by wife Doris (Broadway’s effervescent Heather Lee), daughter Kim (the enchanting Jill Townsend), and young son Randolph (pint-sized showman Terren Mueller).  

Bisom is Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire rolled into one as he sings and dances his way into the audience’s (and Rosie’s) heart with the win-her-back-with-a-song “Baby Talk To Me,” backed by harmonious quartet Delp, Hernandez, Michael Sky Moon, and Eric Weaver, and the soft-shoe delights of “Rosie,” with partner in charisma Nucci.

If her performance in Bye Bye Birdie is any indication, Nucci is on her way to be L.A.’s musical theater star of year.  The second act pretty much belongs to her, beginning with the biting “What Did I Ever See In Him?”  Then there’s the cleverly staged “Shriner’s Ballet,” which has Rose dancing on (and popping out from under) tables and being wooed and comically man-handled by a bunch of drunken (but harmless) Shriners (including Brandon Heitkamp, Mark Oka, and Karl Warden).  Finally, Nucci positively sizzles as she has fun with every Latin cliché in the book in “Spanish Rose.”  “I’ll eat the tacos and the enchilada!  I’ll drink Tequila till I feel no pain! The only song I’ll sing will be “Granada”! I’ll be more “español” than Abbe Lane!”

In the title role of Birdie, James Royce Edwards is the next best thing to The King himself as he swivels his hips and causes grown women to faint with “Honestly Sincere,” “One Last Kiss,” and “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do.”  Local favorites Townsend and Robert Pieranunzi (Hugo Peabody) are never any less than excellent, and here they get to put their own stamp on roles made famous in the 1963 film version by then teen-idols Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell. Townsend, best known for the lovely soprano she displays in “How Lovely To Be A Woman,” turns out to be a whiz of a dancer in “Ice House Livin’” (another great Mojica number) and Pieranunzi is so engaging as Hugo that one longs to see him in the big starring role that’s sure to be in his future.

Reinventing the role of mother-from-hell Mae Peterson, made famous by Kay Medford, Maureen Stapleton, and Tyne Daly, is the irrepressibly put-upon Lana Hartwell.  Miller is cute and funny as Kim’s best friend Ursula Merkle.  Stevens is a sexy Gloria Rasputin, and the scene in which she has to be lifted back up after managing with some effort to do the splits is hysterical.  Completing the ensemble are the multitalented Rachel Genevieve, Merissa Haddad, and Melissa Mitchell.

Musical director Alby Potts and the 16-piece CLOSBC orchestra sound as great as ever, especially with John Feinstein as sound designer. Costume designer Karen L. Cornejo has created a bevy of rainbow-colored 1950s treats (lots of full skirts over layers of petticoats). Darrell J. Clark lights the stage with seemingly every Crayola color in the book. Best of all the design elements are Christopher Beyries original sets. CLOs normally rent scenery from each other as a cost-saving measure. This time, though, CLOSBC has built the sets from the ground up, and I can’t imagine a more perfect design. The geometric shapes which back up the various set changes have a great 50s/60s feel, and (my personal favorite among the locales) the MacAfee home has a deliciously cartoon-like look, with exaggerated colors and angles.

In all my years a theatergoer, I’d somehow managed never to have seen a stage production of Bye Bye Birdie.  I consider myself fortunate in that when I finally got my chance to experience the magic of Birdie, it was in a production as splendid as this one. Kudos to Executive Director/Producer James A. Blackman, III and all concerned!

Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.

–Steven Stanley
September 23, 2008
                                                               Photos: Alysa Brennan

Comments are closed.