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Review of Bye Bye Birdie by Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

Bye Bye Birdie - Photo credit Lidia Crisafulli
Bye Bye Birdie – Photo credit Lidia Crisafulli

Presented as a one-act show (despite being written as two acts), it’s not been seen in the West End since 1961 and is set in 1958. It’s another one of those stage shows set in an era where the cool kids, like the title character of Conrad Birdie (apparently a play on words on the singer Conway Twitty (1933-1993)), a popular rock singer with hordes of screaming teenagers for fans.

Conscription in the United States lasted until 1973, known as ‘the draft’, and a part of American stage shows set in that era, such as Hair. Here, Conrad is about to go into the Armed Forces, which will leave Albert Peterson (Andrew Ferry), a composer who wrote a song which became a hit after Conrad recorded it, in dire straits, financially speaking – having had a steady job as a school teacher, he went into the more volatile music industry. You only live once and all that. Luckily for Peterson, his assistant Rose Alvarez is thoughtful and resourceful.

Then there’s Hugo Peabody, who has a ‘boy next door’ charm about him, the significant other of Kim MacAfee (Ella Gregory), the leader of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club. Kim’s father, Harry, is even more of a traditionalist than Dr Jake Houseman in Dirty Dancing, and his wife Doris is rather underwritten as someone who is expected to cater for her husband’s every wish. The style of music is almost relentlessly happy, as befits the upbeat style of the chart music of the era that appealed to the youth of the time. Not for nothing is one of the musical numbers called ‘Put On A Happy Face’. But another one, ‘Hymn For A Sunday Evening’, is quite ridiculous, and is almost entirely devoted to the news that the MacAfees will be in the studio of ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ on the night Conrad has a slot: “Ed-Ed-Sul-Sul, Ed Sullivan! Ed Sullivan! We’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan!” But the stage transforms into ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ without Ed Sullivan as an on-stage character, which struck me as slightly odd.

Aside from providing the audience with a good amount of song and dance to sit back and enjoy, there is something to be said about the intensity with which celebrities are followed, then and now – and if Conrad began to get tired of fulfilling contractual obligations placed on him by Peterson, one wonders how much has really changed in the chart music business in these allegedly more enlightened times. I also can’t help but make a comparison to the 1998 motion picture Pleasantville, which is rather more political than Birdie: the latter keeps the focus on the personal stories of its characters, with barely detectable attention to the wider social issues going on at the time.

There are few projections in this production, and none of the camera work that shows with scenes set in a television studio would sometimes have. With lighting rigs extending out onto the floor level of the performance area, the stage can look very bare in the more intimate scenes. I found it rather amusing when a child in my row at the performance I attended called out, “Where did everyone go?” after a big ensemble number came to an end and most people had indeed disappeared. The music felt more ‘Broadway’ than ‘rock’, even in the ‘Ed Sullivan’ scene, but was a pleasure to listen to nonetheless. It’s a brief production, but a cheery and heartfelt one too. And the message is clear enough from Conrad: whatever station in life anyone happens to be in, there’s “a lot of livin’ to do”.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Musical Theatre returns to Blackheath Halls this summer with this classic high-school musical brought back to life.

USA 1958, Teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie has been drafted into the army, so he chooses All-American girl Kim MacAfee for a very public farewell kiss before he heads off.

Inspired by Elvis Presley’s army days and full of rock & roll tunes, Bye Bye Birdie captures the energy of small-town American teenagers and remains as fresh and vibrant as ever.

Creative Team
Director Michael Howcroft
Musical Director David Randall
Choreographer Jenny Arnold
Set/Costume Design Amy Yardley
Lighting Design Bretta Gerecke
Assistant Designer Pollyanna Elston
Costume Supervisor Cristiano Casimiro
Sound Design Chris Tanton
Sound 2 Iain Audsley
Production Stage Manager Sophie Stoddart
Deputy Stage Manager Joanna Nead
Production Electrician Jake Rowe
Lighting Programmer Eren Celikdem
Production Sound Paul Gavin / Purple Sheep
Band

Keyboard David Randall
Reed 1 Layla Allen
Reed 2 Hannah Brierley
Guitar Shaozhe Yuan
Drums/Percussion Isis Dunthorne
Bass Darren McCarthy
Musical Numbers

1. Overture
2. The Telephone Hour
3. Healthy Normal American Boy
4. One Boy
5. Honestly Sincere
6. Hymn for a Sunday Evening
7. Put On A Happy Face
8. One Last Kiss
9. What Did I Ever See in Him?
10. Baby, Talk To Me
11. A Lot of Livin’ to Do
12. Kids
13. Baby, Talk to Me

Cast List
Albert Peterson – Jordan Broatch / Andrew Ferry
Kim MacAfee – Sarah Dare / Ella Gregory
Mrs. Doris MacAfee – Zoe Beardsall
Randolph MacAfee – Lucy Christmas
Conrad Birdie – Ciaran McCormack
Mr. Harry MacAfee – Jordan Donnelly
Rosie – Mollie Angus / Hannah Miller
Ursula Merkle – Chloe Fry
Mrs. Mae Peterson – Daniel Kerr
Hugo Peabody – Oliver Wheddon
Helen – Hayley Huggett
Nancy – Corrie Earley
Alice – Nancy Banks
Margie – Chloe Ravenscroft
Penelope – Danielle Rose
Deborah Sue – Sarah Dare / Ella Gregory
Harvey Johnson – David Rimmer
Freddie – Joseph Heron
Karl – Sam Daltry
Gloria Rasputin – Sadie Hurst
Lee – George Grant
Phyllis – Sadie Hurst
Mr Johnson – Jordan Broatch
Mrs Mayor – Sarah Dare / Ella Gregory
Mr Mayor – Ethan Lawlor
Suzie – Abigail O’Neill
Quartet – Sam Daltry / George Grant / Joseph Heron / Ethan Lawlor
Mrs Merkle – Mollie Angus / Hannah Miller
All other roles played by the company.

Book by Michael Stewart
Music Charles Strouse
Lyrics Lee Adams
Director Michael Howcroft
Musical Director David Randall
Choreographer Jenny Arnold

Great Hall, Blackheath Halls
15th June 2019
https://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/

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