Last summer, Davis Productions gave us the wonderfully polished, Broadway-quality Pirates of Penzance. This summer's offering, Bye, Bye Birdie, falls far short of last year's benchmark production. From sets that resemble three-year-old high school flats to dance numbers that involve more standing around than dancing, this summer's musical leaves you wanting.
Author Mike Stewart's thin story line for the 1961 Tony Award-winning musical was based on the life of Elvis Presley. Bye, Bye Birdie tells the story of Conrad Birdie and the teenage population's response to his being drafted into the Army.
Birdie's promoter, Albert Peterson, uses the situation to boost Birdie's career and get himself out of debt. His plan involves choosing a Birdie fan at random and having the singer give this one lucky girl a final, highly publicized kiss before Birdie goes off to the Army.
Besides showing us typical parent-teenager conflicts through a Leave It to Beaver-style family, the story also presents the continuing struggle of Albert's girlfriend to convert him from a cowardly mama's boy playing at fame and fortune into an independent, responsible, English-teaching husband.
Luckily, the score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams is chock-full of wonderful songs such as "Put on a Happy Face" and "One Boy."
A show like Birdie gains strength from a fast-paced, high-energy presentation. In this production, however, director Michael Lancy--who has cast some very talented and energetic performers--leaves his performers lost onstage as they grope their way through scenes that go nowhere. This is especially evident in the scenes between Albert (played by Gary Sandy of WKRP in Cincinnati fame) and his girlfriend/secretary, Rosie Alvarez, played superbly by Molly Marie Davis.
Despite Albert's fevered pitch and Rosie's steady simmering, their interactions produce noise, but few real fireworks. The energy needed for this show to succeed appears only when Birdie sings, and when the high schoolers of the lucky fan's hometown, Sweet Apple, Ohio, sing and dance their way through such showstoppers as "The Telephone Hour" and "One Last Kiss."
These young performers, dressed in wonderful '50s-style costumes (coordinated by Pam See) and backed by Craig Bohmler's nine-piece orchestra, bring most of the life to this production.
What makes the evening enjoyable are some fine performances. Michael Berry shines with his wonderful, I've-got-the-world-at-my-feet portrayal of Conrad Birdie. When Berry hits the stage, the audience reacts with the same enthusiasm exhibited by his admiring fans onstage. Berry's "Honestly Sincere" and his youthfully optimistic "A Lot of Livin' to Do," make Berry the true star of the show.
Producer Molly Marie Davis gambled by casting herself in the pivotal role of Rosie, but it paid off as this multitalented actress sings and dances her way effortlessly through the role. Davis' rendition of the Act II opening song, "What Did I Ever See in Him," is explosive.
As Kim MacAfee, the teenager chosen to receive Birdie's farewell kiss, Dana Pauley seems uneasy. Her movements appear choreographed and unnatural, though her excellent vocal ability expresses her youthful exuberance.
Brian Runbeck shows superb timing and versatile physical comedy as Kim's father. Runbeck's interpretation of "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" and his crazy antics during "One Last Kiss" are highlights of the evening.
The role of Mae Peterson, Albert's meddling mother, has the potential to steal the show. However, with Barbara McBain's interpretation of the role, that's out of the question. McBain works too hard on each laugh, diminishing or killing most of the humor in her character.
The big disappointment of the evening is Gary Sandy in the lead role of Albert. Though Sandy sings admirably, he seems to be attempting--badly--an imitation of Dick Van Dyke (who portrayed Albert in the original Broadway production and movie version), making his character come across as stilted and contrived.
With the right cast, appropriate direction and enough energy, Bye, Bye Birdie should make for a delightful evening of theatre. Unfortunately, this production fails to fully capture the exuberant spirit of this award-winning musical.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.