I was warned before I went to see Golden Performing Arts Center's production of Bye Bye Birdie. "It's regional theater, don't expect too much." Well, yes, it is true that the Madrid Theater is a facility of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. And no, not everyone in the company is ready for the Ahmanson or the Mark Taper Forum. But if the truth be told, I had a great time.
Bye Bye Birdie is the classic musical based on the Michael Stewart novel, which is based on the premise of Elvis Presley's induction into the army and the effect it has on the 1950s teenybopper. The teen idol going off to war in this musical is the newly drafted, Rock ‘n' Roll bad boy Conrad Birdie (Robert Petrarca). But the fourteen-year-old girls of America aren't the only ones with a big problem. Birdie's manager Albert Peterson (Mishi Schueller) is sunk without the singer. His entire music company hinges on Birdie's appearances and performances. Birdie's drafting is the worst thing that could happen to the floundering company that is deeply in the red.
Rose Alvarez (Jaclyn Miller) is Albert's dutiful secretary (and more) who has stood by him for eight years in hopes of becoming Mrs. Albert Peterson. But Rose is fed up. Only when Rose hands Albert her resignation does he to promise to quit the music business and become the English teacher he promised he would one day. All that is standing in the way of their new life is getting the company out of the red.
This is exactly the proposition Rose has been waiting for. She promptly comes up with the publicity gimmick that will get Albert out of debt. Picking a name at random from the rolodex of Conrad Birdie Fan Club presidents, Rose proposed that Conrad kiss an all American girl, as a grand gesture and farewell to all the teenaged girls of America, one last kiss right before he goes off to war.
It's a brilliant yet simple plan. But Albert and Rose do not count on how difficult it will be to corral Birdie, even in such a small town. Nor do they anticipate their random selection for the kiss, fifteen-year-old Kim MacAfee (Lindsay O'Neil) of Sweet Apple, Ohio getting pinned, thus newly going steady with Hugo Peabody (Barry O'Neil), or that there are legions of Conrad Birdie fans everywhere. Finally, Rose and Albert eventually split over the wedge that has always been between them, his mother. By the end of the first act, the audience is left wondering if love, or a common cause will bring them back together again.
This production delivers everything from tap dancing to chorus lines to nostalgic yet wholesome comedy. Jaclyn Miller was great. She performs a wonderful dance number as her Rose breaks into true spontaneous choreography for her "One Boy" solo. Petrarca and company give great fun and energy to the "Lot of Livin' to Do" number (my personal favorite).
Loved the Bartender Quartet; very funny staging and the best harmonies of the show. Much comic props to both Dan Wilson Davis as Harry MacAfee, a father who has completely lost control of his own household in the wake of Conrad Birdie, and also Toni Taubman, who bore the yoke of the most difficult (and dated) character to sell, overbearing, fur stole wearing, interfering Mother Mae Peterson; a woman determined to keep her son unmarried and all to herself.
Birdie at the Madrid is not without its problems. The orchestra was a bit too loud throughout and the ensemble vocal performances could use a bit more polish. The Shriners number, although very cool in terms of execution, went on a bit long for me. But mostly, I can't believe how choreographer Joe Joyce got 20 plus people dancing on a stage that size without one collision. Impressive job.
Bye Bye Birdie takes you back to a simpler time: 1959, when the biggest problem families faced were your teenaged daughter using the word puberty and the greatest symbol of American success was to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. It celebrates the ideas of family and loyalty while recognizing that intergenerational communication is a timeless enigma. This show is a fun time without guns or profanity. A great escape, as good musical theater should be.
Where: Madrid Theatre, 21622 Sherman Way, Canoga Park, CA 91303
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; also 8 p.m. July 27
Ends: July 29
Price: $23 to $31
Contact: (818) 347-9938
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes