Bye Bye Birdie, book by Michael Stewart, Lyrics by Lee Adams, Music by Charles Strouse. Directed by Monica M. Wemitt.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Where do you go to have a little fun?"
Good fun is available at the Mac-Haydn Theater in Chatham, New York as Conrad Birdie sails into town to say good-bye before leaving for Germany to become a common soldier. He is aided in his "One Last Kiss" experience by his manager/songwriter Albert Peterson and Petersonís two women, Rose Alvarez, his loving and loveable secretary and Mae Peterson his indomitable mother. The girl chosen for the kiss is Sweet Apple, Ohioís own Kim MacAfee whose boyfriend discovers what jealousy really means. The show abounds in melodic hits, "Put On a Happy Face," "How Lovely to Be a Woman," "One Boy," "A Lot of Liviní to Do," "Kids," "Talk To me," "The Telephone Hour (Going Steady)," and "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" the lyrical tribute to the immortal Ed Sullivan.
This show is so much fun, in fact, that not even second-rate leading actors can destroy it. Andy Geary does a neat job playing Albert until he sings. He just isnít a singer. Heís a good looking young actor with a nice stage presence and he moves well when he dances, but his singing is not worth the body mike he wears and, as luck would have it, the technician seemed to always neglect to boost Gearyís volume. As an actor this man has a future, but singing lessons may not help his thin, reedy wobble or his pitch problems.
As his lady-love Sarah Pigion does a very decent job with her scenes also, but she suffers from the same vocal mis-steps as her co-star. She doesnít have a musical career ahead, Iím afraid, although her dancing in the Shrinerís Ballet wasnít too bad and she does have a wonderful knack for facial gestures and physical reactions. As players, she and Geary are well-matched and as they dance the finale, "Rosie," it would seem as though fate has indeed brought them together. Letís just hope their babies donít want to be vocalists.
The two stars of this show are Conrad and Mae. Seth Eliser proves himself to be a very good vocalist, in fact, and the microphone issues in this production prevent most of the audience from hearing him most of the time. His voice is sweet to hear, is interpretive in lyrics that go nowhere special, and unamplified is a small voice. He is also a handsome young man whose acting ability is about equal to his singing: small enough for the stage and probably just right for television stardom if the breaks come h is way. He is a talent. Thatís for sure.
Monica M. Wemett plays Mae like a manic Tyne Daly being held down by a full-grown lion. Decked out in a constant fur coat, she plays Mae for all the character is worth and ten-fold. The result is a sure-fire laughs, a moment or two of actual empathy until she unveils her true nature, and then the flare of anger that Mae precipitates in all who meet her. Wemett is at her best in this role. She knows exactly how to play the character and how to milk every moment for its fullest potential. In a season where she has done some really good work, this is her triumphant stage-holder.
She has also directed the production and the result is a good, straight-forward production in which the director has allowed, or given, her actors a chance to create full-blown characters who move forward psychologically. There are wonderful moments of desperation for Albert, of comfort and compassion for Rose, of actual neediness for Mae and some delicious quirkiness for Kim and her parents.
Heather Dudenbostel is terrific as Doris MacAfee. Jack Mastrianni is delicious as her young son Randolph and Kevin Kelly is a marvelous Harry MacAfee. This actor knows how to take stage center and plant a rosebush. You feel every thorn while you inhale every scent. Heís that good at getting things across. As the daughter of the house, Kim, Samantha Visconti delivers a decent performance. She has a pleasant voice that she doesnít seem to trust just yet, but she should. She has the notes and she understands the songs. She just needs to give herself the chance to show it.
Her boyfriend was nicely played by Zachary Marshall as was nerdy Harvey Johnson as played by David Armanino. In the chorus was a girl with a wonderful lyric soprano sound who may have been Kiley Hinkle. If it wasnít Kiley, then would she please pass the praise on to the right girl.
At the lowest ebb in the production is the choreography by Karla Shook. I donít know why anyone would let her stage dances. In many of her own appearances here when the dancing begins she is off the stage in a flash. At other times when she dances with the others she is stiff and awkward. Her work here is equally stiff and awkward. In the big production number in act two, "A Lot of Liviní To Do" she gives her large company eight bars of one dance, then eight bars of another, and another and another, some of which are wrong for the period or feel and look wrong in her staging. The crowds on and off stage for her big numbers here are just doing ugly things and making the numbers suffer as a result.
Costumes by Leigh Collins strike a positive chord in the memory and Kevin Gleasonís sets and lights are fine. Even the musical trio made sounds that worked for a change.
Good, bad and whatever you want to call it, this show, overall, was fun to watch and hear, but it helps if you know the songs beforehand and it really helps if youíre not seated in front of a gabby woman who wonít stop talking and who says the most insulting things about the show youíve ever heard, stuff you would never read in a piece I wrote. "Oh, Lady Be Good" to us all.
Bye Bye Birdie plays through September 19 at the Mac-Hayden, located on Route 203 in Chatham, NY. For information and tickets call 518-392-9292.