Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Theater review: Plaza Theatre Company’s Bye, Bye, Birdie says hello to fun
It's a toe-tapping, head-bopping good time.
CLEBURNE Swinging into the 1950s for its 66th production, Plaza Theatre Company presents Bye, Bye Birdie, a jumpin’ and jivin’ tribute to the Tony Award-winning musical. Full of passion, young love, and zany characters, the theatre’s summer lineup of song and dance productions is off to a strong start. Bye, Bye Birdie features a solid lead cast and a teen-centric ensemble with plenty of hits and very few misses.
Setting precedence for the next two hours, a mob of star struck youngsters opens the show with squeals and earplug-worthy screams for Conrad Birdie, a singer who has been drafted into the Army. Fresh off their two-week summer camp, approximately 20 members of Plaza’s Teen Show Camp are given the opportunity to perform in Bye, Bye Birdie, with some appearing for the first time on stage. Plaza’s inclusion of the intensive class members, whose ages range from 13-18, into one of their mainstream shows is educationally sound but the overwhelming amount of ensemble members overcrowds the already small theater-in-the-round space. The group brings plenty of vocal power to the show but scenes with choreography, unless simplified, are sometimes messy and scene changes with such a large crowd can be chaotic. However, in the essence of presenting a perfectly clean show versus providing their students with an unforgettable experience, I prefer the latter.
Josh Leblo is pleasantly awkward and sheepish as momma's boy Albert Peterson, the first of several New York characters. Leblo's first big number, “Put on a Happy Face,” is barely an introduction to his musical talent but he does a decent job keeping up with the dancers. It isn't until the second act that his performance becomes more natural with the character's bumbling demeanor. The true moment where Leblo's casting is solidified is during “Baby, Talk to Me”. His smooth, crooner voice is perfectly romantic as he attempts to woo Rose. While Leblo has excellent chemistry with Trich Zaitoon (as his mother) as Albert begins to stand up for himself, Leblo's overall performance could add more variety to the character's tone, breaking up Albert’s whiny and stressed out moments, of which there seem to be a lot. Perhaps that is why Leblos's closing number stands out since his singing voice and romantic moments with Rose are in such stark contrast and feel honest.
As Rose Alvarez, Caitlin Leblo complements her part in the Albert/Rose storyline with strength and bravado. Her take action, no nonsense approach to her relationship with Albert while moving the story along is well-orchestrated and Leblo easily becomes the show’s anchor. Her alto voice has a clear tone that projects beautifully in her upper register.
As the lead adult female, Leblo matches the elegance and class of the style of women from the 1950s (at times somewhat reminiscent of Rosemary Clooney) and brings some much needed maturity to the stage when comparing to the amount of teen characters and adults that act like teenagers. Leblo's best performance is “Spanish Rose”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek song that has Rose, a local girl from Allentown, PA, sarcastically embellishing her Spanish heritage. Leblo is witty and delightful throughout the entire number, even contending with some breath-stealing choreography. Her softer moments are some of her best work and can be partly attributed to her connection with Josh Leblo.
Together, Josh and Caitlin Leblo (husband and wife offstage) have the best chemistry during their lovey-dovey moments. Go figure. Romance aside, the pair actually have good comedic timing and a natural rhythm to their dialogue as Albert and Rose. The final duet, “Rosie,” shows off their playfulness with and endearment of each other that would be nice to see glimpses of earlier on.
The seemingly ever-present thorn in Rose's side comes in the form of Albert's mother Mae Peterson. Played by Plaza veteran Trich Zaitoon, the brash, conniving mother of all mothers comes to life on stage in what's sure to be an award-nominated performance. Zaitoon is masterful at embodying Mae Peterson, milking every ounce of pitying emotion she can from her son in order to get her way. She has the right amount of likability mixed with some New York attitude that makes her character a standout role. Zaitoon's swan song in Act II set to the militaristic song “Glory, Hallelujah,” is deliciously satisfying to watch.
Rounding out the New York cast is Brandon McCormick as Conrad Birdie, the most glorified character of Bye, Bye Birdie. For all the pomp and circumstance Birdie receives as a big time rock star, McCormick is underwhelming in his portrayal. His vocals are good and he has the look, however the character needs more pizzazz and more confidence. McCormick's rendition of “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” shows that he can let loose and he garners a few laughs during an interchange with Mae Peterson. McCormick has the potential but needs more time to warm up to his character.
Leading the cast of Sweet Apple, OH, is the all-American MacAfee family. Madeline Smith plays fifteen-year-old Kim MacAfee, the lucky teen whom Conrad Birdie is set to kiss before going into the Army. Smith gives a great performance. Her too-mature-for-her-age attitude is perfectly delivered and she excels at being an overly-dramatic, coy, surly and bubbly teen, just a few examples of the character's highs and lows. Smith handles them all with finesse.
G. Aaron Siler is an absolute scene stealer as Harry MacAfee. In a role made famous by the amazing Paul Lynde, Siler fills the character’s shoes so well and so honestly that he makes it all the more comical. Most of Siler's great moments occur in his reactions to the actors around him. The breakfast scene in which Kim and Mrs. MacAfee prepare for Conrad is well-structured and rehearsed but it is Siler’s demeanor that makes the shtick work. The best reaction is during “Honestly Sincere” when all of Sweet Apple seems to have lost their sense of propriety except for Mr. MacAfee. Once again, Siler gives the audience a performance to remember and the entertainment keeps coming. From the Ed Sullivan Show scene to “Kids,” Siler can’t help but draw your attention.
The other half of the MacAfee family is Emily Warwick as the mother, Doris MacAfee, and Henry Cawood as little brother Randolph. Warwick is a powerhouse singer with few musical numbers to showcase her talent but among the small chorus and group numbers she has a beautiful, prominent voice you cannot miss. She displays a meekness and quirkiness to Mrs. MacAfee that balances well with Siler. She finds these small moments, such as during “Honestly Sincere” or during Kim's telephone call, to bring those traits out and creates a gem of a character. Cawood’s performance as Randolph is a cross between Opie Taylor and little brother Randy from A Christmas Story. I typically view Randolph as a throw-away character to help round out the cast, but in Cawood’s case, this young actor can hold his own. He is feisty but sincere without being bratty, and boy can this kid sing! Cawood’s solo in the “Kids Reprise” is spot on and he is a joy to watch.
Among the throng of teens, one stand-out character is Scout Harrell as Ursula Merkle, Kim's best friend and president of the Sweet Apple Conrad Birdie Fan Club. She certainly has the term "free-spirited" coined to her performance and to say that Harris exudes charisma and charm is an understatement. Ursula's cringe-worthy personality is not for the timid. Harrell is bold in her choices and gives a phenomenal, spirited performance.
Directing the production is mother-daughter team Tina and Tabitha Barrus in their first co-directing project. Bye, Bye Birdie is a classic show that has been performed for over fifty years but Tina and Tabitha manage to utilize their large cast to bring this much-loved musical to the Plaza stage. It was interesting to see how the directors develop a plan to move the story along swiftly in such a small space and with several significant scene changes.
Perhaps the largest geographic scene change is traveling from the New York City train station to Sweet Apple, OH, during “A Healthy, Normal, American Boy”.
In this instance, the larger cast works by splitting up the towns- people roles, and with assistance from costuming and the projections from set design, the scene goes halfway across the country in mere seconds. The transition is smooth enough and it works.
Tina and Tabitha also find a few instances to put in a little extra charm and comical work. Following “Honestly Sincere,” the use of complete silence is smart and amusing as Rose crosses a plethora of fainted townspeople. The movement of Albert’s telephone booth during “Baby, Talk to Me” is another example of finding hidden moments to add a little corniness (as much as I love the sweetness of that song).
The ever-changing, versatile walls and ground floor of the stage are given a sleek black and blue makeover with Tina Barrus' set design. The retro patterns remind me of old 50s and 60s television screens which would be fitting for the era and content of the show. Aside from one rotating panel, the entire set is continually constructed and deconstructed using wooden crates painted in an array of yellows, blues and pinks splattered with more paint. Barrus crafted chair backs and other furniture pieces into and on to the back of the crates, creating more ways to utilize each piece. The rotating panel is used for the majority of the show as a blank canvas upon which specific backgrounds are projected such the train stations and the MacAfee home. The movement of the set pieces is its own ballet.
Cameron Barrus' light design is intricate and requires timing that must be matched by the actors during certain songs. “The Telephone Hour” is the most complicated musical number due to the amount of featured vocals. The other challenge for Barrus is working with Josh Leblo's height and keeping his face and other surrounding actors out of his shadow such as in Albert and Rose's opening scene.
Costumes by Kara Barnes are less poodle skirts and saddle shoes and more flattering skirts and blouses for the women. The choice to go against such a strong stereotype as I’ve seen previously with other Bye, Bye Birdie productions is surprising but it works in the show’s favor.
There’s more character definition for each female role through their costuming and Barnes also creates a noticeable difference between the residents of New York and Sweet Apple. Specific characters keep their signature looks, such as Mae Peterson’s oversized fur coat and Conrad Birdie’s cuffed jeans, white tee, and coiffed hair.
In her debut as Choreographer for Plaza’s production, Faith Brown is tasked with a long list of scenes to showcase her dancers and make the actors look good while moving. From tap to swing, she does a commendable job working with the large cast and featuring her experienced performers. The opening scene gives a good look at how Brown is proficient at making twenty to thirty teenagers appear in sync. While most of the cast are actors who can move rather than dancers who can act, Brown doesn’t complicate the choreography any more than needed especially in the bigger group numbers, even though there are still a few stragglers.
The big tap number of the show, “Put on a Happy Face,” begins with Albert and two young girls, played by Eden Barrus and Emma Whitehorn, who are both exceptionally strong tappers. Their performance, which later includes David Midkiff, is just one highlight of the show. Josh Leblo holds his own even though it feels out of place at one point to have him lying on the ground with the teens. The choreography for the number is accomplished and the teen dance corps give a clean, crisp performance.
“Honestly Sincere” is the largest dance number of the show, and Brown does not hold back from utilizing every inch of space or rotating dancers to showcase some partnering work.
In Act II, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” isn’t as big a dance number as expected, but the performers are pared down to the dance corps.
Finally, Brown’s choreography for “Rosie,” Albert and Rose’s final duet, is charming, quaint, and fits their scene perfectly.
Bye, Bye Birdie is a toe-tapping, head-bopping kind of musical … and that’s just what you’ll see from the audience. Not only will Plaza Theatre Company make you forget all about the hot, Texas heat but they’ll show you a rockin’ good time.
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