Bye Bye Birdie

Charles Strouse / Lee Adams / Michael Stewart [Music / Lyrics / Book]
Bye Bye Birdie

Albert Peterson – Henry Pettigrew
Rose Alvarez – Polly Conway
Mrs Peterson – Leon Williams
Conrad Birdie – Gareth Kennerley
Kim MacAfee – Hayley Atwell
Mr MacAfee – Luciano Dodero
Mrs MacAfee – Tim Lewis
Randolph MacAfee – Matthew Spencer
Hugo Peabody – Carwyn Jones
Helen Peabody – Matti Houghton
Mayor Litterdale – Robert Wilson
Mrs Litterdale – Richard Thompkins
Ursula Merkle – Sophie Roberts
Mrs Merkle – Ricky Champ
Harvey Johnson – Richard Shanks
Mr Johnson – Charles Meyer
Gloria Rasputin – Emma McMorrow
Margie – Rachel Tyson
Alice – Ursula Lansley-Early
Nancy – Emma McMorrow
Joe – Charlie Cattrall
Freddie – Jason Eddy
Dick – Kristopher Kling
Voice of Ed Sullivan – James Sobol
Dance captain – Matti Houghton

Director – Martin Connor
Musical Director – Michael Haslam
Set & Costumes – Mark Bailey
Lighting – Colin Grenfell
Sound – Richard Bower
Choreographer – Steven Harris
Assistant musical director – Laura Bangay

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 29 June, 2005
Venue: Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London

While the Guildhall Opera Department recently brought us a magical swallow, in the shape of Jonathan Dove’s “The Little Green Swallow”, it was the turn of the final-year drama students to take up the avian theme in a rare revival of Charles Strouse’s musical “Bye Bye Birdie”, with lyrics by Lee Adams and book by Michael Stewart. Except it’s not about birds at all…

Inspired by the hoo-hah that surrounded Elvis Presley’s drafting into the army in 1958, “Bye Bye Birdie” – first seen on Broadway in April 1960 with Dick van Dyke as Albert, Chita Rivera as Rose and Dick Gautier as Birdie, transferring to the West End just over a year later still with Chita Rivera but now starring Peter Marshall and Marty Wilde – actually only uses that fact to hang a rather impressive show about differences in generations.

The premise is quite simple; hip-gyrating, jeans-and-leather-jacket-wearing rock star Conrad Birdie has been drafted into the army. One last publicity stunt, taking him to the sticks to kiss one lucky girl, is the bright idea of his manager’s secretary Rose, who has been trying for eight years to break her boss, Albert, away from his clawing, manipulative mother, Mae. When they all pitch up in Sweet Apple, Ohio – where Kim, the lucky girl-to-be-kissed lives – Conrad shakes things up so that the teenagers are rebelling against their elders. Will things settle down – or rather, who will settle down with whom?

On a set of simple brilliance – two vinyl records, the larger (12” LP?) below the raised smaller (7” Single?) – with only the minimal of additions (the back of a train, a bar, the MacAffee’s living room and the curtain of a Sweet Apple theatre press-ganged into usage for the “Ed Sullivan Show”), all backed by a vibrant blue sky with bright white clouds, the versatile cast gave a rip-roaring second performance here reviewed.

While the size of the Guildhall Theatre surely meant that the dialogue didn’t need to be amplified, the show soon settled down to weave it’s quite considerable magic. Why it has not had a major revival in the last 40-plus years is difficult to comprehend, but the Guildhall has gone one better than just a revival, as they had permission to include three songs from the film version (1963, with van Dyke, Janet Leigh and Jesse Pearson) on stage for the first time.

It shares its concerns of long-term engagements with current West End revival, “Guys and Dolls”, although there hapless Nathan Detroit only has Miss Adelaide’s mother to worry about who understands, from her daughter’s letters, that they are already married with a number of children. Here Albert has to find the strength to break away from his mother who will try every deception in the book, not only racial slurs against Rose, but also fictitious terminal illness, to keep him as her “sunny boy”. Meanwhile, Kim’s parents become exasperated with the youthful restlessness of their daughter and ask, when complaining about ‘the kids of today’, why they can’t be just as they were when they were that age.

You may not know it, but there is a hit song: “Put on a Happy Face” is close to the beginning, here transposed to Kim’s steady boyfriend Hugo Peabody trying to cheer up his sister, and getting a tremendous song-and-dance performance out of Carwyn Jones. Equally impressive is Kim’s realisation that she is no longer a girl, but a woman (“How Lovely to be a Woman”) and Rosie’s statement of self-belief, “Spanish Rose”, where Polly Conway – who has an infectious smile to rival Tasmin Little – brings to the boil her annoyance at Albert’s impotence in standing up to his mother.

Conrad himself gets three songs, his opening gambit “Honestly Sincere” and his Act One finale “One Last Kiss” interrupted by Rosie’s sabotage so that he comes away with a bloody nose, not a kiss, from Kim. But his Act Two showpiece, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”, where he escapes the grip of his manger to have some fun on the town (even though he becomes somewhat paralysed when set upon by members of his female fan club). The realisation that life is there for the taking encapsulates a sentiment that is usually only voiced in musicals in retrospect and with regret; what might have been – such as “Oh Well” in Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” (recently revived in English National Opera’s production), or as in “Our Time” Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”. Coupled with vibrant dancing and colourful costumes, this routine packed a real punch, as did Rose’s single-handed incendiary assault on the local all-male Shriner meeting in a brilliant dance behind, under and over a long table.

“Bye Bye Birdie” is also an unusual musical in its subdued ending, as – eventually – Albert and Rose get rid of both his mother and Conrad and elope, but it is a measure of the success of Martin Connor’s production that even the curtain calls are expertly choreographed.

While it is invidious to single out particular players, the four chaps who took on female roles (definitely not a tradition for the score) were terrific: Ricky Champ, the perpetually fainting Richard Thompkins, Tim Lewis, and the all-too Machiavellian Leon Williams – as Albert’s mother.

Whether the Guildhall will produce the sequel, “Bring Back Birdie”, first seen on Broadway in 1981 (and perhaps awaiting its British première), remains to be seen…

  • This review is of the second night
  • Further performances at GSMD until 6 July
  • Tickets from Barbican Box Office – 020 7638 8891
  • Barbican
  • GSMD

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