The fantastic cast of Bye Bye Birdie
Consider yourself fortunate if you can snag a ticket to the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie being performed by the Musical Theater Department of Manhattan School of Music. We are far from expert in the field of musical theater; on the few occasions on which we risked attending a Broadway musical, we recall leaving disgruntled by the shallowness of the material and the deafening amplification. Nonetheless, last night we had a huge grin on our face from the overture to the curtain call.
For this delight we credit the extremely talented cast which was supported by an excellent production team, including an orchestra conducted by David Loud, comprising excellent student musicians. We found no mention of them in the program.
The work dates back to 1960 at which time it received many awards and mostly excellent reviews; it ran for two years. The tuneful music by Charles Strouse worked hand-in-hand with the charming lyrics by Lee Adams. The book by Michael Stewart, with its references to celebrity worship and adults' disdain for the younger generation, seems rather contemporary. A somewhat disguised version of Elvis Presley's induction into the United States Army presented opportunities to satirize these themes.
There are two lead couples and all four artists offered dramatic and musical delights based upon inborn talent, astute direction by Katie Spelman. and a great deal of hard work, the latter of which an audience rarely thinks about. Those "kids" worked hard and deserved all the applause they received.
We were very impressed by Bella Pacheco Rarick who portrayed Rosie Alvarez, the secretary who does all the work and gets little reward from her boss Albert Peterson (Niko Charney). All she wants is for him to give up the music business and settle down as a schoolteacher with her as his wife. Fat chance she has since Albert is tied to the apron strings of his controlling and manipulative mother; Mrs. Peterson strongly disapproves of Rosie's Latin American heritage and misses no opportunity to insult her. (Did we find this offensive? Of course not!) This is a period piece and her bigotry is amusing and provokes Rosie's star turn in the number "Spanish Rose" in which she lays it on with a Latino vengeance. We were inspired to learn more about the show and found out that the role was originated by Chita Rivera who must have been a child in 1960.
Mr. Niko is similarly talented as her love object and boss; he has written a hit song and found his life plan derailed by his client's fame. His best number was a song we are sure we have heard before--"Put on a Happy Face". He did a fine job portraying a man who is pulled in many directions--his love for Rosie, his managerial duties toward the singer named Conrad Birdie, and the outrageous demands of his mother.
The formidable Mrs. Peterson was played by one Jake Koch in high camp, wearing sensible shoes and a fur coat. Peals of laughter greeted her every over-the-top movement. This artist is a real stage animal!
The teenage girl Kim Mac Afee, chosen as a publicity stunt to give the Army-bound Conrad his "last kiss" was portrayed by the adorable Kate Jones who inhabited her role completely. She cannot be much more than 16 years old herself and is close enough to the teen years to sing the satiric "How Lovely to be a Woman" with convincing delusion. She has just gotten "pinned" (received a fraternity pin) by her boyfriend Hugo (Marcus Cruz) who spends the entire show in rivalry with the famous Conrad Birdie. He was also convincing in his portrayal and very funny in his drunk scene.
We loved the Mac Afee family! We marvelled at the young artists' ability to assume roles belonging to different generations. Lauren Fitzgerald was so convincing as Kim's mother that we forgot she was a student. Her grumpy husband was played by Ben Hahn and it was such fun watching him trying to get on camera at the Ed Sullivan Show. Deacon Smith was completely endearing as little brother Randolph walking around in pajamas with feet. This may be the time to mention the costuming by Mieka van der Ploeg which was colorful and very reflective of each performer's character.
The difficult role of Conrad Birdie was played by Jacob D. Dueker who sang "Honestly Sincere" and the vaguely familiar "A Lot of Living to Do" with lots of swagger and a decent recreation of the "scandalous" body movements of Elvis Presley. Unfortunately he seemed a bit miscast, lacking the dangerous bad boy vibes that the role required.
There are, of course, no "small roles" and Maci Terry made the most of her brief scene as the tap dancing Gloria Rasputin enlisted by Albert's mother to lure him away from Rosie.
All of the ensembles were excellent, especially the teen aged girls in "The Telephone Hour" and the adult chorus joining in for "Kids", another vaguely familiar song. Have we mentioned that these artists, appearing so professional, are all undergraduates? Astonishing!
We are still smiling several hours later, and we are also thoughtful. Although we detest moving our favorites in the opera canon to the 1950's, we enjoyed seeing a story taking place in that period, so apparently authentically recreated. Who is alive today who remembers the 50's? Our knowledge of this epoch comes from film and TV. The passage of over six decades have wrought so many changes to our culture that this period seems as alien to us as the 18th c. And yet, we find resonance in things that never change from Mozart until today--generational rivalry, romantic jealousy, irrational idolization of public figures, etc.
As we have often averred, Broadway musicals are the true inheritors of the operatic tradition. Fie on boring prosy libretti and tuneless academic music! The public knows what they like. A good laugh, a good cry, relatable characters, and tunes you can hum. Bring 'em on!
© meche kroop