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HAPPY DAYS

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Although "Bye Bye Birdie" is considered part of the "Golden Age" of musicals, and it is produced endlessly in youth theaters around the country, it has never been revived on Broadway. That is all the more amazing considering the show introduced some of our most beloved popular songs - "Put on a Happy Face," "A Lotta Livin’ to Do" and "Kids!"

Phill Greenland, who co-directs Brooklyn Family Theatre’s production of "Bye Bye Birdie" (through Nov. 20) with Lorraine Stobbe, believes this may be because the play, which revolves around an Elvis-like rock ’n’ roll superstar named Conrad Birdie, is so much a part of the late 1950s, it has now become a period piece and a bit too outdated for Broadway. But with hits like "Annie," "The Wiz" and "You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown" under his belt, Greenland was willing to take a chance on what is really a sure thing.

"Bye Bye Birdie," which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on April 14, 1960, was the first big hit for songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, librettist Michael Stewart and director Gower Champion. It also gave a huge boost to the careers of Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde.

The show ran for 607 performances and was made into a film three years later starring Ann-Margret, with Van Dyke repeating his stage role and Ed Sullivan playing himself.

As the show opens, manager Albert Peterson (Hector Coris, a veteran of many Brooklyn Family Theatre shows, who once again proves he can make any part his own) is in a quandary. His client, Conrad Birdie (Travis Bloom, a newcomer we’d like to see more of) has been drafted into the Army. Rose (Kanova Johnson), Albert’s secretary and girlfriend, is tired after waiting eight years for him to give up the music business and settle down as an English teacher. Rose tells him she’s quitting her job and wants him out of her life. Albert’s mother, the overbearing Mae (the biting and boisterous Gail Lemelbaum) refuses to get out of his life.

Mostly out of desperation, Rose suggests a publicity stunt that will make enough money for Albert to get out of the business forever: one lucky Birdie fan will be chosen to give the star a farewell kiss on the Ed Sullivan show, which will hopefully lift Birdie’s latest record, "One Last Kiss," to the top of the charts.

The fortunate young lady is Kim MacAfee (Christina Neubrand) of Sweet Apple (compare to Big Apple), Ohio, who unfortunately has a jealous boyfriend, Hugo Peabody (Billy Rayner), and a disgruntled father, Harry (Jonathan Valuckas, who made the perhaps difficult but ultimately rewarding decision to pass up directing to take up this part).

Using painted flats, color-coordinated costumes and a few props, Greenland and Stobbe have created the feel of small-town Sweet Apple and the simple lovable people who live there through songs like "The Telephone Hour" with its teen chatter, and "Ed Sullivan (Hymn for a Sunday Evening)." While the plot (thin as it is) advances with songs like "What Did I Ever See in Him?" and, of course, there’s Lemelbaum’s rousing "A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore," originally performed by Kay Medford, who took up the same theme in Broadway’s "Funny Girl" with "Who Taught Her Everything."

For the most part, Greenland and Stobbe are served well by the enthusiastic cast. Coris, Valuckas and Lemelbaum each have a voice and presence that keeps the show moving briskly. Bloom is a sexy, hip-swiveling Birdie, who comes close enough to The King to satisfy this baby boomer. But although Johnson and Neubrand have nailed their roles, neither have voices that are strong enough for leads.

However, "Bye Bye Birdie" depends heavily on a lively chorus of teens, and in songs like "A Lotta Livin’ to Do," "The Telephone Hour" and "The Ice House," this ensemble makes it abundantly obvious why the musical launched the careers of Strouse, Adams and Stewart.

"Bye Bye Birdie" is definitely a must-see for kids of all ages, and parents who accompany their children won’t have much trouble putting on a happy face while watching this exuberant romp.

 

Brooklyn Family Theatre’s production of "Bye Bye Birdie" runs through Nov. 20, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 5 pm. Tickets are $12. Brooklyn Family Theatre is located at 1012 Eighth Ave. at 10th Street in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 670-7205 or visit www.brooklynfamilytheatre.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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