Audiences out Claremont way have ample reason to “Put On A Happy Face” this month and next as Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre revives the rock-n-rollin’ 1960 Broadway favorite Bye Bye Birdie, Michael Stewart’s delightful Elvis-inspired book and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ oh-so-memorable songs making for a crowd-pleasing evening of Golden Era musical theater.
Boomers with good memories will recall how pelvis-swiveling teen idol Presley’s 1958 induction into the U.S. Army inspired mass hysteria among rabid female fans across the nation. The same “oh no, it can’t be true” reaction is felt in Bye Bye Birdie when Elvis stand-in Conrad Birdie (Kevin McDonald), beloved by teen girls from California to New York, gets his draft notice, a reaction shared by songwriter Albert J. Peterson (Allen Everman) and longtime girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Amber-Sky Skipps), 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 (Beth Mendoza), 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, the appropriately titled “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, he can’t get through to 15-year-old Kim MacAfee (Maggie Anderson) to give her the good news that she’s to be the lucky kissee. Kim’s just been pinned by her boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Austin Michael), news which has the phone lines of Sweet Apple, Ohio abuzz. (Who can forget Strouse and Adams’ infectious “The Telephone Hour,” and its “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—dad Harry (David Aldrete), mom Doris (Candace Elder), and preteen son Randolph (Logan Watts)—get 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 Sul…livan.”)
Now celebrating the 54th Anniversary of its Broadway premiere, Bye Bye Birdie features one instantly recognizable, sing-along-able hit after another, and though “Put On A Happy Face,” “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” “One Boy,” and “Kids” in particular have been covered by just about every singer in the book, what’s fun at Candlelight is hearing them in their original, storytelling context.
“Happy Face” is Albert’s attempt to cheer up a train-station-full of Conrad Birdie fangirls who simply can’t bear the thought of a world without their idol, “A Lot Of Livin’” has Birdie, Kim, and Hugo off for an exciting night on the town, “One Boy” gives Kim a chance to do some female-bonding with Rose over the not-so-perfect men in their lives, and “Kids” has Kim’s befuddled Dad complaining in considerable detail about the younger generation: “Laughing, singing, dancing, grinning, morons! And while we’re on the subject …”
Equally memorable is the now-classic “The Telephone Hour,” featuring Hector Guerrero’s bright and bouncy choreography along with nerd-to-end-all-nerds Harvey Johnson and his voice-cracking interjections. (“Hello, Mrs. Miller, this is Harvey Johnson. Can I speak to Debra Sue?”)
“Healthy Normal American Boy” is Albert and Rose’s attempt to convince reporters that Conrad Birdie is not a heavy-drinking would-be draft dodger who gave an 18-carat engagement ring to a married Hollywood starlet, while “Hymn For A Sunday Evening” features Kim’s harried dad Harry MacAfee uttering Paul Lynde’s now classic “Ed, I love you!”
Most of the above are featured in Bye Bye Birdie’s sensational first act, a series of hit songs and cheer-worthy Guerrero-choreographed production numbers that Act Two unfortunately does not replicate, writers Stewart, Strouse, and Adams having a whole lot of plot twists taking place offstage and opting to end the show, not with a great big, standing-ovation-worthy full-ensemble number but with an anticlimactic Rosie solo and a charming if slight Albert-Rosie duet. (A previous production beefed up the teenagers’ 11th-hour “Ice House Livin’” sequence into a major production number, something that could give Candlelight’s Birdie a bit more second act punch.)
Still, with director John LaLonde assuredly in the director’s seat (the out-of-the-blue choir-robe delivery is particularly inspired) and Guerrero and his very young, very talented song-and-dance ensemble giving us plenty to clap about in “The Telephone Hour,” “One Last Kiss,” and “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” Bye Bye Birdie makes for two and a quarter hours of family-friendly Candlelight entertainment.
Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera originated Albert and Rose back in 1960, and their roles are brought back to vibrant life in 2014 by the delightful Everman and the effervescent Skipps. The former gets to show off his song-and-dance pizzazz in the taptastic “Put On A Happy Face” while the latter gets her own chance to shine in “Shriner’s Ballet,” which has Skipps dancing on (and popping out from under) tables and being wooed and comically man-handled by a bunch of drunk but harmless Shriners.
Everman radiates charm in the win-her-back-with-a-song “Baby Talk To Me” and the soft-shoe showcase “Rosie,” while Skipps proves red-hot in the biting “What Did I Ever See In Him?”, then pokes fun at 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!”)
Mendoza milks every mother-from-hell laugh as Mae Peterson, a role made famous by the likes of Kay Medford, Maureen Stapleton, and Tyne Daly.
An appealingly dangerous McDonald swivels his hips and causes grown women to faint with Birdie’s “Honestly Sincere,” “One Last Kiss,” and “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” the captivating Anderson makes for a sparkly, feisty girl-next-door as Kim, and the marvelous Michael is a teen-idol handsome Hugo any high school girl would want to have pin her.
Aldrete turns hot-and-bothered Henry McAfee a scene-stealer without ever once aping the role’s stage-and-screen originator Lynde, his stage wife Elder and stage son Watts providing nifty familial support.
Matthew Dunn (Harvey Johnson), Katie McConaughy (Gloria Rasputin), and Kimmy Zolozabal (Ursula Merkle) are standouts in cameo roles, though there’s not a weak link in a triple-threat ensemble completed by Jarred Barnard, Michael Chiaverini, Michael Deni, Renna Nightingale, Jessica Ordaz, Emily Relph, Janissa Saracino, Chad Takeda, Jenaé Thompson, Jeffrey L. Warden, and Hannah Wolgemuth, with Barnard, Chiaverini, Dunn, and Warden contributing melodic four-part harmonies to “Talk To Me.”
Musical director Douglas Austin elicits pitch-perfect vocals performed to prerecorded tracks. The Theater Company’s costumes (coordinated by Jenny Wentworth) are Techni-color-coordinated treats featuring lots of letterman’s jackets, plaid shirts, and full skirts over layers of petticoats, and Mary Warde’s wigs are topnotch creations as well. Steve Giltner of STEVEGDESIGN lights the stage with his accustomed expertise, the production’s uncredited sets scoring highest marks in Act One, which features one colorful, three-dimensional design after another, after which Act Two’s extensive use of black-curtain backdrops does come as a bit of a letdown.
Logan GrosJean is stage manager and Orlando Montes technical director. Executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval’s serve up Candlelight’s invariably scrumptious cuisine. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, production manager Neil Dale, and especially to artistic director LaLonde.
A “cutting-edge” look at contemporary America when it first debuted on the Broadway stage, Bye Bye Birdie has, in the intervening half century, become a nostalgic period piece. Ed Sullivan, vinyl 45s, and 1950s innocence may have gone the way of the dinosaurs, but they live on into the 21st Century in this tuneful 1960 delight, one sure to keep Candlelight audiences entertained as spring turns to summer 2014.
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.
June 7, 2014
Photos: Kirklyn Robinson