Let me sum up my thoughts on the show by saying one thing. Do whatever you can to rearrange your schedule to make sure you DO NOT MISS the Off Broad Street Players’ production of BYE BYE BIRDIE! It is an outstanding evening of classic musical magic!
Now that that is out-of-the-way, let me start by saying that I did not have very high hopes when I was heading to the show. There were a lot of “red flags” that would generally lower my expectations. First red flag, the show. BYE-BYE BIRDIE is “more fluff than stuff”. It is not generally high on my list of shows I want to see. Second red flag: The Off Broad Street Players is a group which has moved around a lot in their 14 year history. That can sometimes indicate instability. Third red flag: the show is being held in a high school auditorium. If you have, like me, seen many a bad high school production of BYE BYE BIRDIE, that can bring back some painful memories. Fourth red flag: when I arrived in the lobby the cast photo board showed that a large number of the cast members were high school students, particularly younger high school students. See red flag number three.
Shortly after my arrival though, things began to pick up. First, I heard the wonderful strains of a full orchestra tuning up before the show. Full orchestral accompaniment of musicals has become rare in recent days so this was a particularly nice treat. The orchestra, under the direction of John Drechen, did not disappoint.
The overture was accompanied by a wonderful video montage of pop-culture references from the late 50s and early 60s helping set the time period of the show (a second montage was shown during the “Entr’acte” opening Act II). We were then greeted in the opening scenes by record label owner/manager Albert Peterson (Andrew Jarema) and his secretary/girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Kelsey Hogan) as a love spat is interrupted by a business emergency. These two actors, who were really the focal point of the show, were very smooth, animated, and dripping with talent. Hogan in particular really set the bar high for the whole show with her performance of the song “An English Teacher”. It told us right then that we were not going to be forced to choose between good acting and good singing. Both were definitely on the menu!
The basic story is that teen idol singer Conrad Birdie has been drafted into the Army. To help save his career, Rose hatches a plan to have Albert write a goodbye song, then select one teenage fan at random for Conrad to visit, sing the song to, and kiss, before boarding a train for the Army. The remainder of the musical shows the resulting chaos of a teen star coming to a small Ohio town. Lay that on top of the romantic struggle between Rose and Albert and his overbearing Mother and you have the makings of a story full of humor and conflict.
As the show progressed, the sheer depth of talent to be found from the Off Broad Street Players was staggering. From major characters like Conrad Birdie (Aaron Pierce) and his golden pipes, starry eyed teenagers Kim MacAfee (Alexis Lounsbury) and Ursula Merkle (Lauren Ashley Wood ), luckless Hugo Peabody (C.J. Jarema), and “Mama” Mae Peterson (Patty Fralinger), to supporting characters like Mr. and Mrs. MacAfee (John Muller/Beverly Beardsley), their son Randolph (Matthew Dugan), Mayor (Thurman Hogan) and countless others, there was no shortage of talent on the stage!
Pierce as Birdie not only sang the part admirably, but managed to pull off a character that was both detestable and likable. Not an easy feat. Muller and Beardsley kept the Act II ball rolling with an entertaining performance of “Kids”. Dugan later on duplicated this success in a reprise of the song. What a pleasure to watch!
Director and choreographer John Stephan definitely deserves much of the credit for the production. The choreography was unbelievable! The dancing chops really showed in the songs “Put on a Happy Face” and “Honestly Sincere”. The blocking and the choreography in the “Shriner’s Ballet” was particularly creative and very well executed. It was apparent throughout the whole show that the cast had spent many hours rehearsing and perfecting the numbers.
If I had one piece of advice to offer the director it would be this. Lounsbury, as Kim MacAfee, was very funny, and sang wonderfully. But I could’ve used a little more depth to her character. I had high hopes that that depth would develop as she “grew up” in the show but it never came to pass. While it is a tough role to bring a realistic feel to, I have no doubt Lounsbury could pull it off. Hogan brought a lot of wonderful depth to the role of Rose, and things would have been even better if some of that reflected in Kim.
The big lesson I learned in seeing Off Broad Street Players production of BYE BYE BIRDIE is that you cannot let the red flags get in the way. There is a good chance I may have never gone to see this production on my own, and that would’ve been my loss. The Off Broad Street Players seem to be an amazing magnet for talent in the lower South Jersey area. Clearly, they are doing something right and I look forward to seeing more of their productions.
BYE BYE BIRDIE
Book by Michael Stewart
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Lee Adams
Directed and Choreographed by John Stephan
Musical Direction by Dana Mae Gayner
February 11 – 20, 2011
Off Broad Street Players
(Performances at) Millville Senior High School
200 North Wade Boulevard
Millville, NJ 08332