The fact that teenage girls get screamy, weepy crushes on entertainers is no news flash (sorry, Justin Bieber). It's been going on since Frank "Swoonatra" crooned his way into your great-grandmother's 13-year-old heart back in the 1940s. But Elvis Presley has always been the gold standard for girlish idol worship (sorry, Shaun Cassidy), and Bye Bye Birdie is the satirical musical tribute to that crazy time.
Now at the Porthouse Theatre, this production of the show that has become a staple of high schools everywhere has plenty of bright spots. But a pivotal role is a shade off, and that deflates some of the fun that usually provides the bounce to this throwback songfest.
Set in 1958, agent Albert Peterson is kvetching because his star rocker, Conrad Birdie, is heading off to the Army, just like the Pelvis did. But Albert's secretary and main squeeze Rose has a brainstorm: have Birdie record a song, "One Last Kiss," and arrange for the singer to give that kiss to a girl drawn at random from Conrad's rabid nationwide fan club.
As it turns out, the winner is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio, and soon that whole tiny burg is jonesing for fame, since the ultimate kiss will be broadcast live on The Ed Sullivan Show.
With lively music by Charles Strouse and clever lyrics by Lee Adams, the slim Michael Stewart book is jolted to life at all the right spots. At least it is if the songs are executed crisply and with the right amount of go-for-broke fun.
Happily, this happens quite often, with the early song "The Telephone Hour" capturing the hormone-driven urgency of teenage gossip, going steady, and getting pinned. With the teen chorus spinning around on platforms, choreographer John Crawford helps set the stage for the euphoria and heartbreak to come. Another high point is "Honestly Sincere," sung with an amusingly repetitive lack of sincerity by Dan Grgic, who brings a much-needed whiff of sexual menace to Birdie.
The most challenging role is Albert, the agent who is conflicted on many fronts, trying to please Rose while dealing with his guilt-factory mother Mae (a spot-on Lissy Gulick). As Albert, the usually fine Nick Koesters doesn't quite have the light touch the role requires. This is particularly evident in "Put on a Happy Face," which he performs with warm concern rather than with daffy playfulness. With a notable lack of imagination both in the choreography and in the performance, this highlight tune feels more like a mandatory dance recital than an exuberant anthem to the giddy power of silliness.
Although she pushes a bit too hard in places, Sandra Emerick crafts a formidable Rose, fighting her way past Albert's cluelessness and his mom's Lou Dobbs-style bigotry, which was probably funnier back when it was written than it is now. Emerick's featured dance number, the "Shriner's Ballet," is hot enough to singe the fuzz on anyone's fez.
As the love-struck Kim, Cassie Rea sings powerfully and delivers just enough tender vulnerability to trigger her parents' concern. But once her dad learns that his home will be on the sainted Sullivan show, he goes all gaga in front of the cameras. Marc Moritz resists the urge to overplay Mr. MacAfee or channel Paul Lynde's snarky movie take on the role, especially in the song "Kids." He is ably supported within the family by Katherine Burke as his wife and Patrick Kennedy as son Randolph.
In smaller roles, Danny Lindenberger is affecting as Hugo, Kim's determined boyfriend, and Melissa Cotton has a comical moment as Gloria Rasputin, a floozy whom Mae met on the bus and decided would be a better secretary for sonny-boy than Rose.
The storyline says bye-bye to Birdie well before the end of the show, which is too bad, sending him off unceremoniously in disguise before the obligatory happy ending.
Even with the discordant racist twinges in the script, back from a time when comedian Bill Dana's doltish Mexican character Jose Jimenez was considered hilarious, Birdie continues to be a favorite in our Broadway musical canon. And this Porthouse production gives it a snappy, although less than perfect, staging.
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