Cabrillo Music Theatre revives the 1960 Broadway classic Bye Bye Birdie with a now almost unheard-of cast of more than sixty, and though this is one Birdie that doesn’t say “Bye Bye” till two hours and fifty-five minutes after the first note of its Overture, the all-around sensational revival provides proof positive why theater lovers and local businesses must rally behind the endangered Southland musical theater mainstay that is Cabrillo. To paraphrase Irving Berlin, there’s no musical theater in Ventura County like Cabrillo Music Theater.
Boomers with good memories will recall how pelvis-swiveling teen idol Elvis 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 (Austin MacPhee), beloved by teen girls from California to New York, gets his draft notice, a reaction shared by songwriter Albert J. Peterson (Zachary Ford) and longtime girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Michelle Marmolejo), 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 (Celeste Russi), 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 (Noelle Marion) to give her the good news that she’s to be the lucky kissee. Kim’s just been pinned by her boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Harrison Meloeny), 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 (Jim J. Bullock), mom Doris (Farley Cadena), and preteen son Randolph (Micah Meyers)—get the thrilling news … and are even more thrilled when they learn that the whole shebang 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 in 2014 is hearing them in their original, storytelling context.
“Happy Face” is Albert’s attempt to cheer up a couple 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,” originally choreographed by Broadway legend Gower Champion and at Cabrillo by John Charron, with nerd-to-end-all-nerds Harvey Johnson’s unforgettable voice-cracking interjections (“Hello, Mrs. Miller, this is Harvey Johnson. Can I speak to Debra Sue?”) adding to the fun.
“Healthy Normal American Boy” is Albert and Rose’s attempt to convince reporters that Conrad Birdie is absolutely 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!”
Director par excellence Lewis Wilkenfeld cues us in from the Overture that this isn’t going to be just any old Bye Bye Birdie, with screaming female Conrad fans popping up around the Fred Kavli auditorium throughout said Overture to do what screaming female rock fans do best (scream) and even, at one point, to swipe the baton out of conductor Lloyd Cooper’s hand the better to get all seventeen pit musicians swinging to the beats of “We Love You Conrad.”
And how about Bye Bye Birdie’s two leads for Broadway-caliber star quality! Ford, one of Southern California’s busiest and best musical theater leading men, brings his patented nerdy charm and golden vocals to Albert as SoCal newcomer Marmolejo’s gorgeous pipes in “An English Teacher” prove just the tip of the iceberg of talent that is the sizzling Broadway National Tour vet. (Mismatched adjectives be damned.)
The now iconic “The Telephone Hour” provides further proof that this won’t be your grandparents’ Bye Bye Birdie—or perhaps then again it will be. After all, when since your grandparents were teenagers has a professionally produced Birdie offered audiences over two dozen gossip-sharing teens keeping the Sweet Apple phone lines abuzz with news about Hugo and Kim?
Choreographer Charron gives us one sensational dance number after another, from great big (and I do mean big) ensemble showcases like “The Telephone Hour,” “Honestly Sincere,” “One Last Kiss,” and “A Lot Of Living To Do” to sequences that prove Marmolejo a legitimate successor to Broadway legend (and original Rosie) Chita Rivera, most particularly a five-minute solo that gives Marmolejo the most exciting female dance showcase since A Chorus Line’s Cassie set off to show Zach that she still had it in her. Oh, and Ford gets to show off his own Gene Kelly feet opposite Sad Girls Amanda Carr and Megan Stonger in “Put On A Happy Face” and opposite his leading lady in “Rosie.”
As for Bye Bye Birdie’s showstopper of a “Shriner Ballet,” I can’t help wondering if this now iconic sequence has ever been staged or performed with more imagination and flair than it is by Charron, Marmolejo, and a dozen men wearing fezes?
In addition to stars Ford and Marmolejo (who not only demonstrate bona fide triple-gifts but have great chemistry together), Cabrillo’s Bye Bye Birdie benefits from an all-around spectacular supporting cast, most notably scene-stealer extraordinaire Bullock, whose inspired channeling of Broadway original Lynde earns him one spontaneous burst of applause after another.
Marion couldn’t make for a more enchanting, more silver-throated Kim, MacPhee a sexier, swivel-hippier Birdie, nor Meloeny a more endearingly devoted Hugo, and since each role is a night-and-day change from the trio’s previous turns (Marion’s deliciously dumb Kitty in The Drowsy Chaperone and MacPhee’s tormented romantic teen and Meloeny’s besotted gay boy in dueling productions of Spring Awakening), the three up-and-comers earn added points for versatility.
As for Russi, it’s hard to imagine any performer milking more laughs from overbearing Mother From Hell Mae Peterson, Russi’s “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” giving Cabrillo’s Bye Bye Birdie yet another show-stopper.
Cadena’s fabulous ‘50s mom Doris, Meyers’ adorably high-pitched Randolph (and mini-Birdie), Francesca Barletta’s coo-coo-for-Conrad Ursula, and Anne Montavon’s ditzy Gloria Rasputin are all comedic gems, with Christopher Reilly, Markus Flanagan, Tracy Ray Reynolds, and Raymond Mastrovito excelling too in their cameos as Harvey Johnson, Mayor, Mayor’s Wife, and Bartender Maude.
And how exciting it is to see as talented a bunch of (mostly) honest-to-goodness teens-playing-teens as those performing on the Cabrillo Music Theatre stage: Emily Albrecht (Judy), Harrison Anderson (Dennis), Jessica Bernardin (Alice), Michael J. Brown (Franklin, Hugo understudy), Savannah Brown (Becky Lynn), Carr (Lucille), Paul Crish (Karl), Maggie Darago (Margie), Gabi Ditto (Nancy), Josh Ditto (Tommy), Jay Gamboa (Alex), Peter Dallas Lance Gill (Bruce), Cameron Herbst (Otis), Natalie Iscovich (Dottie), Kurt Kemper (Montgomery), Michael Kennedy (Paul), Isabella Olivas (Cindy), Jocelyn Quinn (Helen), Reilly, Ali Rosenstein (Mary Beth), Jennifer Sanett (Mary Kate), Stonger (Peggy Lee), Alison Teague (Roberta), Antonia Vivino (Phyllis Ann), and Natalia Vivino (Deborah Sue).
The adult ensemble members deliver as well in multiple cameos—Erin Fagundes, Flanagan, Heidi Goodspeed, Timothy Hearl, Gina Howell, Mastrovito, Montavon, Paul Panico, Reynolds, Leasa Shukiar, Shannon Smith, Richard Storrs, and Scott Strauss, along with “guest Shriners” Arryck Adams and Steve Giboney.
A children’s ensemble (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) completes the humungous cast to give Cabrillo audiences a delightful Act Two musical surprise.
Bye Bye Birdie sounds great thanks to musical director Cooper and sound designer Jonathan Burke, and looks pretty spiffy thanks to lighting designer Rand Ryan, wardrobe supervisor Christine Gibson (costumes provided by The Theatre Company, Upland, CA), hair and makeup designer Cassie Russek, and prop designers Kyle Duncan and Alex Choate (rental props designed by Courtney Strong). Only scenic designer Adam Koch’s okay but not spectacular sets (provided by the Lyric Theatre Of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, OK) don’t really live up to Cabrillo’s “Broadway In Your Backyard” slogan, though truth be told, the Fred Kavli Theatre gives Cabrillo a bear of a set to fill.
Kai Chubb is assistant choreographer. Brooke Baldwin is production stage manager, Gary Mintz technical director, and Char Brister crew captain.
Though a nearly three-hour-long running time (and extra-long, albeit justified, preshow curtain speech) lets evening audiences out at past-bedtime-for-many 11:15 p.m., that’s about the only complaint any musical theater lover could proffer about Cabrillo Music Theatre’s award-caliber Bye Bye Birdie revival.
Here’s hoping Birdie provides Cabrillo the Bird Of Fortune the SoCal treasure so richly deserves.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
July 18, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger