Martha J. Clarke and the costume shop of Arizona Broadway Theatre have done it again. From the cowboy-print pajamas on little brother Randolph to the huge, crinolined confections on the wives and mothers, ABT's Bye Bye Birdie is a vinyl overnight bag crammed with the ginchiest Barbie and Ken outfits for you, the audience member, to enjoy. Popping with turquoise, tangerine, kelly green, and cherry red, tight little jackets, novelty prints, and argyle and madras for days, Clarke's designs paint the entire picture for every scene.
Kara Thomson's scenic design is also masterful, especially the little vintage touches in the MacAfee family home. And since the set has to be a multipurpose, easily shifted structure, it subtly and appropriately recedes into the background most of the time, which is actually quite an accomplishment for a design that looks like a Mondrian done in a Martha Stewart palette. The muted colors are just the right setoff for the saturated tones of the clothing, and the boldly outlined rectangles reinforce the Space Age-meets-psychedelia world of the show's tumultuous early-'60s setting.
Overall, the production creates a lovely myth, a candy-sweet America where nothing was as innocent as it seemed, but most things usually turned out all right in the end. The story, inspired by the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley's 1957 induction into the Army, follows the struggles of teen idol Conrad Birdie's handlers to keep him marketable and out of trouble for as long as possible.
The full-on exuberance of Birdie's fans is a wonder to behold. The young folks chatter, scream, swoon, and bop like they're jet-fueled, sometimes inspiring the adults of Sweet Apple, Ohio, to follow suit. We were especially impressed by Chelsea Cree Groen, the only actual high-school kid in the cast, who plays Kim MacAfee with a naive ripeness and a warm, spot-on voice. Did you know that "How Lovely to Be a Woman," a.k.a. "the Walmart song," is a song from this show? (I'm just relieved to learn it isn't Björk who sold out to sing it for the commercial.)
"Put on a Happy Face" is the big hit from Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' score, which also includes the little ditty I learned as "We Love You, Bus Driver." But there are several other catchy tunes, many sung by the dead sexy Erin O'Neil as Rose Alvarez, the full-grown woman who's spent years waiting for boyfriend Albert Peterson to get out of the music business and on with his dream of being, yes, an English teacher.
Some of the script's a little dated, which may be why we don't see Birdie produced as often as some other musicals that are, frankly, a lot clunkier and less witty. Just think of the anachronisms as teaching moments. During intermission, as you enjoy your dessert (before ordering the apple cheesecake, ask whether the chef's still making it big enough for three people), you can enlighten your tablemates about Ed Sullivan's totemic popularity, what was so naughty about running off to be a chain-smoking beatnik, and why people thought that Peter Lawford might wind up with a government job.
Bye Bye Birdie continues through Sunday, July 19, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets are $55.50 to $75.50 and include a two-course dinner and drinking water (gratuity not included). Appetizers, other drinks, and desserts are available at additional cost. Order tickets here or call 623-776-8400.
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