Bye, Bye, Birdie: Fully Loaded Fun

 

photo credit: Reagle Players

Bye, Bye, Birdie, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, book by Michael Stewart, Reagle Music Theatre, Waltham High School Robinson Theatre, 7/13/12-7/22/12, http://www.reagleplayers.com/current.html#Birdieinfo.

Reviewed by John Herring

(Waltham, MA) I’ve always enjoyed seeing shows at Waltham High School’s Robinson Theatre. The audience space is ample, clean and comfortable, the orchestra pit plenty big enough for a mid-size ensemble, the technical facility is as good as or better than many professional theatres, and the acoustics are good. Which brings me to the sound quality of the orchestra. Winds and strings went together as tightly as I recall ever hearing a show orchestra play, with volume to fully envelop the listeners. So much so that I worried about the actors having to belt when they should soften, or being overpowered altogether. But worries were unfounded. Music Director Dan Rodriguez and Conductor Jeff Leonard made sure that the orchestra did what any good show orchestra should do – support and enhance the action.

Let me give props to Sound Designer Shane Bourgeois’ expert moderation of music, solo and chorus. I never had a problem hearing the soloists over the orchestra when their turns came, and they were allowed to blend with their song partners and choruses when not in the spotlight. This provides foundational support for the talented ensemble that holds many, many years combined of experience and training which served them well with Director and Choreographer Larry Sousa’s blessedly fast pace.

Speaking of the chorus, they were always tight enough I never had to wonder where they were headed, or what had just been sung. Together, they were usually as clear as a solo, even while in vigorous movement, and always supported soloists with stillness or the right position, or the right vocal levels. You all rock!

In addition, to the girl who let the hoop get away today rather than try to wrestle it off the knotted rope: Good cover! Quick thinking and good improv by you and your partners.

This is a cast that knows a thing or two about energy. From the outset, we see it in the action. Mae Petersen, for example, is a juggernaut. I mean that in the best way. She is reserved, yet inexorable, never wasting energy where she doesn’t need to. Anita Gillette inhabits Mae Petersen with the adage, “less is more,” letting us have her, rather than forcing herself upon us, as she does to poor Albert. And in a true display of professionalism, she and Jacob Sherburne sailed through an instance of dropped lines, regaining course easily, as did Brad Walters when his body mic fell free and needed to be reattached offstage.

It’s possible you will recognize Anita Gillette , as I did, from her portrayal of Liz Lemon’s mother on “30 Rock” or from recurring mother roles with “CSI”, and “Law & Order SVU.” But you’d be overlooking several decades of quality work, including feature films, stage, a Tony nomination, all the celebrity game shows I can remember and dozens of “Tonight Show” appearances with Johnny Carson. Co-headliner Ryan Overberg (Conrad Birdie) has taken a rather reverse track in his career. He has already had a star turn or three on professional stages, before deciding to attend the Boston Conservatory. His credits do not reach as far back as Ms. Gillette’s, but promise to encompass many of the same goals in the future.

Jacob Sherburne’s Albert Petersen seems to live on a frenetic knife’s edge. Every movement of his through most of the play – right up until he tells Mae to “go home”, has almost a desperate quality. After he breaks his maternal bond, however, the energy broadens and mellows to a more natural level. His secretary, Rose Alvarez, portrayed by Carman Napier, is a rock-hard foil to him. Strength. Confidence. Hardness. Unflappability. That is where she lives, and never does she fully emerge from that place. When you need for her heart to break, or for her fight to take flight, it doesn’t. Not even a little. I never wonder if she will be okay, so I never join her in her onstage life. Vocally and physically, however, she is one of the show’s powerhouses. Ms. Napier knows how to work a song, and to use her body to support her action.

Almost all of the show’s musical numbers are very strong. Exceptions to that are in the “Shriner’s Ballet,” where Rosie eats a group of self-important Shriner businessmen alive in a powerful flamenco-leopard-shark kind of way; in “Spanish Rose;” in the MacAfee parents’ song, “Kids;” and in the show’s final number, “Rosie.” The “Shriner’s Ballet” uses the convention of Rose “restarting” several times after successive failures to elicit her desired response from the fogeys. Instead of trying something new each time, she goes after them the same way each time, with some quite funny additions, until finally they break and run, and she has them. I wondered when something would happen to change things; not in anticipation, but in confusion. But then it gets underway and BANG! Rosie eats several stodgy Shriners alive.

My issue with “Kids” is just that it look like they are halfway through working the number to finish. Nothing WRONG, per se, it just seems the blocking is unfinished. I’m wondering if Randolph MacAfee being occasionally off-key could be played up a bit. Rose Alvarez’ “Spanish Rose” is to be her Mama Rose moment. Her dance of abandon very briefly stops and starts several times, dropping Rose’s momentum.

In the show’s final number, I suspect a possible directorial issue, and not strictly a performance issue. “Rosie” IS the final number of the show, featuring Rosie and Albert alone. An audience wants an easily understood denouement symbolic of both their catharses, certainly, but it also has the right to expect a level of energy at least calmly redolent of the rest of the show. It is as if the two lovers forgot how to use the space they have inhabited so fully for the last two hours. Or how to make use of each other, as lovers. It’s a sweet moment, but anticlimactic. They make it more pointed by beginning a lovely center-stage dance with each other just seconds before the end of the scene and end of the show. I wanted more of that, earlier.

Sorry, where was I? I got distracted by a guitarist onstage who was doing his best, but was not playing the right music…

Oh yes! The religious chant to his High Holiness, Ed Sullivan. It’s almost perfect. Keep at it. Then the Pope of evening TV will bless you. And the king of physical play has to be Mr. Overberg. He is a fantastic Jerry Lee Presley. Conrad Birdie is also a charismatic player of parts. Even though he hasn’t the depth of experience yet of some of his counterparts in this show, he accepts peerage with them with aplomb, and with good reason. Mr. Overberg has a well-trained instrument, from head to foot.

Set Designer Richard Schreiber helped set that pace by being sure that all of the pastel painted representative set pieces either would fly or roll on and off with ease. Now that I’ve broken the set into the game, I’m going to call shenanigans on the U.I.L.-inspired set of the first scene in Albert Petersen’s Almaelou Agency. I understand going for the gritty, underfunded look, but those darkly-spattered, grey, squared columns are just jarring. Put that against the next set piece, a brilliant conglomeration of teenagers’ rooms in asymmetrical tiers, done all in bright pastels, from where they all call each other on telephones, and suddenly it’s a different show. Those telephones, and the way they integrate into the costumes and are used, by the way, are absolutely inspired.

I wanted to give Costume Designer Gregg Barnes a standing O right there. Still, I need to ask Mr. Barnes: In the second act, how does Rose manage to change clothes WHILE out looking for Conrad and the kids? I tried to work it out, but physics keep me from a ready answer. Now, personally, I like the costume palette: Ultra-bright pastels in various secondary colors. They made me feel happy and energized, especially with the proper lighting to really bring them out. But there’s always a curmudgeon out there who disagrees. “They make my eyes work too hard,” from one such, nearby. Ah, well…

As for the rest of the set design, the large, well-painted representational sets and backdrops gave instant recognition to each scene, containing the action, but never once overpowering the action or actors, who really were in no danger of that, anyway.

I recommend seeing this talented and technically savvy production.

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