Bye Bye Birdie
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
Before he was a country music stalwart and Family Guy filler material, Conway Twitter was a hipswivelling rival to Elvis Presley. He was one of many key players in the rock n’ roll revolution of the 50s and 60s, an era brilliantly sent up by the musical Bye Bye Birdie.
The show is a satire of American heartthrob culture and the fickle and manufactured nature of fame. Rock Star Conrad Birdie (gettit?) is the nation’s heartthrob, but needs a clever ruse to escape the military draft. As a publicity stunt, Birdie’s manager Albert sends him to small-town America to get mobbed by his adoring fans, but it doesn’t quite go to plan as both Conrad and his girlfriend go AWOL.
Michael Stewart’s script is full of life and fun, sending up Elvis-mania and celebrity culture whilst also providing an appropriate setting for some deeper human stories to develop. The gags come thick and fast and usually hit the spot; Albert’s acerbic mother and superfan Kim’s despairing father get some particular beauties.
The score from Charles Strouse and Lee Adams is packed full of memorable tunes – I’d never seen this show before and was really taken aback by how many songs had made it into popular culture. Whether it’s Put On a Happy Face (a TV soundtrack favourite), Kids (parodied on The Simpsons) or We Love You Conrad (a melody sung by football fans nationwide), the score has taken on a life of its own and it’s easy to see why. Particularly good are the excellent harmonies in Baby Talk To Me and the ode to teenage gossip that is The Telephone Hour; the score will stay in your head for hours after you leave the theatre.
It’s not often you come away from a production in raptures about the choreography but Anthony Whiteman’s movement was a class above and exceeds much of what is found on the West End. There were lots of opportunities for extended choreography – for example Shriner Ballet had about five minutes of continuous dancing (but more of that later). He resisted the urge to go for Grease style jiving and jitterbugging (although there was a bit of that). Instead, it was a highly complex mix of jazz, modern, tap and ballet that was brilliantly performed by the cast; the variety and poise of the movement even reminded me of West Side Story at times.
Although Birdie is the title character, he doesn’t have masses of stage time and remains silent for most of the first half. However, he needs a killer voice – the character’s first words on stage are the Elvis-inspired rock number Honestly Sincere, with its satirically vacuous lyrics. The song builds to a euphoric climax, sending his superfans into hilarious raptures. Zac Hamilton more than meets the challenge, giving Birdie emotional depth and making his musical numbers really work.
Rather than Birdie the two main characters are his overworked manager Albert and his secretary and his love interest Rose. Their on-and-off relationship lies at the heart of the story and it is in fact Liberty Buckland as Rose who steals the show. Rose is a fantastic female character; sweet but also intelligent and devious. Buckland has a superb voice (especially her higher register) and is an excellent actress, but it’s during the Shriner Ballet dance where she shows her star potential.
In this scene Rose has a hapless bunch of men in a gentlemen’s club eating out of the palm out of her hand, wonderfully represented through a good five minutes of continuous dance. Buckland is brainmeltingly sultry and seductive in this scene, with good support from the male ensemble – to carry the audience’s attention for that long is not easy and suggests Buckland has more than a bit of star power. Again, Whiteman’s choreography lifted a scene to the next level; other versions I’ve since seen since look truly pedestrian in comparison (that’s where they exist – this scene is often cut, even from professional productions – probably because it’s a bit risqué).
Ryan Forde Iosco was excellent as Albert; he had great chemistry with Buckland’s Rose and captured the turmoil and comedy of his situation – caught between his fiery girlfriend and overprotective mother. He is not the strongest singer amongst the cast but carries his numbers perfectly well. Jayne Ashley was hilarious as the overprotective mother, showing disapproval and disappointment with every glance and step. Harry Hart also puts in a strong turn as Kim’s father; delivering some highly amusing rants with gusto.
Whilst the cast was excellent across the board, some of the casting seemed slightly unusual. Albert realistically had an ‘older’ mother, however the actors playing fifteen year old Kim’s parents both looked really young (Stephanie Lyse as Kim’s mother especially). Using actors in their 20s to play high schoolers is logistically understandable but didn’t add much clarity on how the play was being cast. Having said that, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, especially as the female ensemble members playing the ‘fangirls’ were very funny indeed. Beth Bradley and Stephanie Palmer were especially good; some of their reactive facial expressions were hilarious and your eyes would often be instinctively drawn towards them when they were on stage.
A very small stage made the blistering choreography all the more impressive however might have impeded clarity during some of the ensemble numbers due to the sheer numbers on stage (especially The Telephone Song, which I only fully appreciated after listening to the soundtrack). The room itself was turned into a 1950s US diner; scenery and props were minimal but there were a few nice touches – some milkshakes in the band area and a CD of Birdie pinned to the wall.
In the wrong hands this show could be become exactly what it is trying to send up; a clap-along, preppy, saccharine affair. However the blistering choreography, catchy score and some fantastic performances mean this restaging works on every level.
Photos: David Ovenden