Most people think of “Bye Bye Birdie,” the musical by Michael Stewart, Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, as one of those cute, nostalgic, feel-good shows performed annually by high school theater departments.
In reality, the play was written as a satire on 1950s America, inspired by the phenomenon surrounding Elvis Presley’s draft into the army.
It helps to know this when watching the show, which can feel stale and dated with obscure cultural references and odd humor.
That said, the Trumbull New Theatre’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie” Friday night was an entertaining experience, though the parody may have been lost on the audience.
The play, set in 1958, focuses on Albert Peterson, a talent agent and songwriter, and his secretary, Rose Alvarez, whose client, rock ’n’ roll superstar Conrad Birdie, is drafted into the Army. As a final publicity stunt, Albert and Rose arrange for Conrad to serenade – and kiss – a fan. When Kim MacAfee, a girl in Sweet Apple, Ohio, is chosen to receive the kiss, her life and town are turned upside down.
Ally Freel played Kim as a sweet but silly girl and sang with an awesome voice. Jason Green was convincing as wishy-washy, conflicted Albert, though his singing voice was a little weak.
The obvious star of the show was Connie Cassidy as Rose, the secretary who won’t give up on Albert. Cassidy, a theater veteran, brought her usual vitality to the character. Cassidy’s Rose was a feisty woman with 1950s charm and ideals. Her strong voice made every song a hit, breathing life into the production.
Aside from the female leads, it was the smaller parts that gave the show its most entertaining moments. First was Alex Lucas, as Harvey Johnson, a nervous boy whose voice cracked every time he tried to call a girl in “The Telephone Hour.” His solos brought humor and charm to the song.
Hannah Gillespie as Alice, and Colleen Browning as Ursula stood out as Kim’s friends with their beautiful, powerful singing and adorable acting. Cody McCormick, as Hugo Peabody, Kim’s sometime boyfriend, played his understated role with sincerity, while James Courim Jr. played Conrad Birdie, the rock star, with overstated Elvis-impersonating hilarity.
As Mae Peterson, Albert’s overbearing mother, Terri Gilbert was one of the most memorable characters in the show. Her brash demeanor and exaggerated, emotional rants had the audience laughing every time she was onstage.
Often, the pace of the show seemed to lag, leading to lackluster musical numbers. Hopefully, as the shows go on, the cast will perform with more conviction.
Incidentally, a revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” is opening on Broadway in a month. It will be interesting to see how Broadway handles the satirical theme of the show.