Artisan Center Theater
Directed by John Wilkerson
Music Director – Richard Gwozdz
Choreographer – Amy Jones
Set Design – Wendy Searcy-Woode
Light Design – Chris Hurt
Costume Design – Ellen Borish
Properties – Kris Hampton
Stage Manager – Bethany Vrabel
CAST (double casting - list is for reviewed performance.)
Albert Peterson - John Tillman
Mae Peterson - Cheryl King
Rose Alvarez - Amy Atkins
Conrad Birdie - Chase Elwell
Kim MacAfee - Melanie Chandler
Mrs. MacAfee - Melissa Tillman
Mr. MacAfee - Kelvin Dilks
Randolph - Nathanael Clark
Hugo Peabody - Caleb Turner
Ursula Merkle - Lindsey McCallum
Helen - Noe Myers
Nancy Deanna - Maddie Norwood
Alice - Mary Kulpa
Margie Cara-Lee Crow
Deborah - Marisa Hampton
Penelope - Alina Jennings
Suzie - Joanna Berry
Sadie - Avery Withers
Harvey Johnson - Nathan Griffin
Gloria Rasputin - Katy Hill
Mayor - Robert Hamilton
Mayor's Wife - Denise Jasper
Mrs. Merkle - Angela Ferris
Mr. Johnson - David Priddy
Charles F. Maude - Max Mandudi
Maude's 1st Customer - Chris Stancil
Caroline - Cameron Kimmons
Bonnie - Cheyenne Ballew
Fred - Josh Crow
Carl - Elijah Brabander
Reviewed Performance 4/23/2016
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Elvis has left the building. Or rather the country. It’s hard to remember how big a deal that was when the King was drafted. The subject of his draft had been manipulated by Tom Parker like it was a Hollywood movie from the day he turned 21. For the years of his service, Elvis was gone, but not forgotten. In fact, he even recorded songs while in the Army. But in the time since, the world has moved on and new Kings have been crowned. But some Elvis fans will never forget March 24, 1958.
In 1961, Broadway opened a new musical based on Elvis’ army story, especially the last kiss.
Conrad Birdie, the king of rock, is drafted and his fans are mourning. A struggling songwriter and Conrad’s manager, Albert Peterson, is devastated, but his girlfriend, Rosie, drives him to write a new song Birdie can perform on television in a last hurrah before reporting for duty. Birdie will perform “The Last Kiss” with a young girl from a local contest. Kim MacAfee, from Sweet Apple, Ohio, is chosen, but her jealous boyfriend is not happy and neither is her father. Chaos ensues when Conrad moves in with Kim and her family. It’s a romp through life in the 50’s.
Bye Bye Birdie is a Tony-winning musical that filled stages across America and even London. It spawned two movies and a TV version and starred such icons as Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Ann Margaret, Bobby Rydell, and Tommy Tune. The musical has since become a popular community theater and high school production. Artisan Center Theater reprised this show from its 2005 season, just in time for the unveiling of its new plush theater seating, and the Artisan stage is once again alive with music. The youth of today may not get all the references, but the story is a fun romp with some great songs and lots of energy.
John Wilkerson directed the Artisan production with a team of talented professionals. To begin, Artisan’s in-the-square stage was filled with an imaginative set, including houses and store fronts, a train station, and a night club. All four corners were playing areas, as was the wall spaces behind audience sections. Wendy Searcy-Woode designed a bright, colorful background that felt a bit like a production of Suessical with all the brilliant, comical colors of windows and set pieces. Windows opened behind the audience seats to reveal kids and parents in their homes. The floor was painted in concentric circles on top of angular lines with a large Suessical-like tree in the center. A kitchen and bed in one corner provided space for the two-story Sweet Apple home of the MacAfee family. Another corner had the back end of a train and the opposite was either Penn Station or Maude’s Roadside Retreat.
Chris Hurt lit this set with very bright colors that highlighted the color wheel of set pieces, creating a vibrancy you don’t always see on small stages. The inside of those windows around the back walls came alive with actors inside the windows. A darkening set created Maude’s Roadside Retreat as a nightclub that enhanced the sudden sexiness of reds and blacks in costumes and furniture during the Shriner Ballet. An even darker and dingier lighting created an old icehouse, an obvious verboten place in Sweet Apple.
Kris Hampton and crew dressed the set with a plethora of 50’s era props and furnishings that looked like they came directly out of my teen years. Actors had lots of props to use for stage business. Telephones, toy weapons, baggage, and many more hand held items. While most of the set was impressionistic and sparse, the Sweet Apple home of the MacAfee’s was detailed with a bedroom typical of a 50’s era teenager and a kitchen filled with pots and pans and dishes and furniture all crammed together in the tiniest of space.
Ellen Boorish dressed actors in the same way, with a range of vibrant colors in bright poodle skirts and polka dot dresses, gold satin jackets and petticoats. Birdie’s greaser costume with leather jacket gave us early Elvis, but also the Sharks and the Jets and James Dean. Rosie’s Shriner costume in red and black allowed the staid secretary to unleash her inner wild child and dance the wild flamenco. Even Mae Peterson’s big fur coat made its debut like it was a character. It all made you want to go down to the drug store for a soda.
Bye Bye Birdie is filled with dance numbers. The 1950’s revived the dance craze of the 1920’s after a dull 1940’s and made dancing a universal teen rebellion. Teenagers pushed the envelopes of acceptable dance as swing evolved from jitterbug, and new dances arrived, like boogie-woogie, twist, and rock-and-roll, largely spurred by Elvis himself. These were the heady days of Bop and sock hops. Amy Jones choreographed Bye Bye Birdie with an eye to getting thirty characters dancing together in small spaces. These dance numbers were high energy songs that lifted the audience in their seats. Dances that stood out to me came during A Lot of Living To Do and Kids, especially the reprise when the whole cast went into a well-devised smorgasbord of styles that filled the theater. And the Shriner Ballet, when Rosie Alvarez drowns her sorrows at Maude’s Roadside Retreat and unleashes her Spanish dance, was likely inspired by Chita Rivera’s classic original stage creation, with a group of up-tight Shriners trying to avoid her. It was high-energy and very well executed, and lots of fun.
Richard Gwozdz directed the music for this show. It was sound track-driven, though I would have loved to see this with an energetic live band. Nearly thirty songs made this show jump, with many running together to build groupings or sets. Everyone sang. Some sang well. Some were not as pure. Harmonies were not always precise, but this wasn’t an episode of The Voice. The songs had energy and it looked like everyone knew their music and had a blast singing them. Tribute to Gwozdz. There was a lot of big-band style ensemble singing. I doubt most patrons could identify most of the songs in this show these days, but the big Dick Van Dyke number sung by Albert Peterson, Put On A Happy Face, was one that became a standard over the years. I have to say that my favorite was Kids, both with Mr. and Mrs. MacAfee and its reprise when the whole ensemble rocked the rafters.
Bye Bye Birdie may be named after the Birdie character, but it is not about him. It is the quintessential love story about Albert and Rosie. Will they find love amongst the chaos?
Albert Peterson was played by John Tillman. It’s meant totally as a compliment, but I saw so much Dick Van Dyke in his performance. He’s wiry and physically flexible and his dances were fluid and wholly committed at all times, especially during Put On A Happy Face. His singing was note perfect and he had a style that made him a natural for this part with facial looks that stunned and delighted those who could see them. Where he shined was his acting, and here he was all his own. His character choices made the sincere, sometimes bumbling, Albert easy to like and laugh at. As Albert tried to control the strings of Birdie, usually with failure and funny results, Tillman gave Albert a vulnerability that made him lovable, especially as he missed the insistent signals from Rosie.
Amy Atkins played Rose Alvarez, Albert’s secretary and love interest. After eight years she has decided it’s time to get her man or else. Atkins had the most sincere, heart-felt ballads in this show and she nailed them with a nice combination of pure, powerful voice, a deepening of each song with her own subtext that revealed Rosie’s longing for Albert, and an acting style that made her a perfect ingénue. Atkins created vulnerability for Rose which was understandable as a woman who wanted her man. Remember, it was the 50’s. But Rose has strength and when Atkins lit into some of her songs, you could feel determination and anguish, especially in her duet with young Kim, What Did I Ever See in Him. Rosie dances a lot, as you might guess from a role originated by Chita Rivera. Atkins danced all songs well, whether in ballroom style with Tillman or other moves. But the highlight was her iconic Spanish dancer during the Shriner Ballet. I don’t know how much was modeled after Rivera’s iconic stage dance, but it was high energy, on the tables, under the tables, all around the tables, in a nifty bit of choreography with the uptight Shriners of Sweet Apple following, avoiding, catching, sometimes missing the energetic dancer. It was colorful, funny, and harkened back to some of the musical movies of the 1940’s which had big, lush, over-the-top dance numbers. It was a bit of an interlude, but fun and funny.
Mae Peterson is Albert’s mother. This version was created by Cheryl King as a saucy Brooklyn mother who knows how to protect her son, his, and her, success, and who knows how to put a guilt trip on him like no one. Mama Peterson is the primary comic relief and King played this in spades. I know Cheryl King and I knew she was in this show, but I did not recognize her. She created a character that was very different from her. She created a look, a body style, a voice, and a presence that made Mae a thorn in Albert’s side and a hilarious joy for the audience. Her comic timing and line delivery was perfect and this was important as she was also Albert’s primary obstacle. I think I can say King was a crowd favorite.
It’s probably a bit cruel to say that Bye Bye Birdie was not about Conrad Birdie. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t important to the story. Chase Elwell looked and exuded the part of a young Phenom who drove millions of young screaming girls to their knees. He had that Elvis posture and those moves down perfectly, without trying to be an Elvis impersonator. Unfortunately, this show didn’t give him much to work with in terms of songs and character work. Elwell had a clear voice and good tone, but his songs, Honestly Sincere and One Last Kiss, don’t allow for much range or a chance to belt a song the way a rock star would sing it. They were really ballads. Elwell did a good job with them. However, in Act 2, Birdie gets to show some real feelings as he’s frustrated by being trapped by the system, maybe fearful about the Army. Elwell revealed his feelings and Birdie suddenly took on the character of someone we could identify. Finally, in his song with the Teen Chorus, A Lot of Livin’ To Do, we got to see Elwell unleash a bit of energy in singing.
Young Kim MacAfee is the teenager who wins Rosie’s contest to be kissed by Conrad Birdie in a publicity stunt. As a 15-year old who’s just decided she’s a woman and ready to leave the childish things behind, Kim is just about to breakout from the Birdie Fan Club. Then the call comes. Melanie Chandler played Kim and her tall slim look with her blond bouffant hairdo made her the 50’s teenager from middle America. Kim is in some ways a parallel of Rosie, as there’s a Sweet Apple boy who wants her, so the Birdie kiss is a huge obstacle to what they think they want together. Chandler played Kim as strong and determined, and as weak and confused, walking a fence between womanhood and childhood. Her high soprano voice was strong and pure as she sang How Lovely to Be a Woman and What Did I Ever See in Him. Her duets with Atkins’ Rosie and Elwell’s Birdie showed great feeling.
Mr. MacAfee is being invaded by the media and a kid he doesn’t much like. He’s irritated at how he’s being displaced by this chaos, and not a little miffed by the attention his daughter is getting. Kelvin Dilks played him as a scowling, toothless father, who wants to put his foot down, but his wife and family are in the way. Another comic relief for the show, Dilks made him a caricature of a Father Knows Best in his own mind, more like Ozzie Nelson (& Harriet) or Ralph Kramden. There’s a lot of bluster, but you knew he has a good heart. He was fully against the kiss, until he learned he would get to be on Ed Sullivan. For the younger folks, Ed Sullivan was the Elvis Presley for the older generation. That created lots of opportunity for Dilks to show his comic stripes. It was Dilks who sang the parents’ anthem, Kids, with Mrs. MacAfee, played by Melissa Tillman. Together they created a view of a typical American 50’s family and this song could have come from the kitchen tables of any American household. Tillman’s counter-point to Dilks’ outbursts, ignoring father for the sake of the kids, was a comedy of its own, but you could see that the couple were innocents who got caught up in the hoopla.
This cast of thirty included a large ensemble, all of them with names. It was clear that each was directed to create a unique character, several for some, and they all did that well. With a host of costume changes, dances, and props to play with, it seemed most developed a character for themselves that contributed greatly to the storyline. They sang a lot and danced a lot. I think my favorite was The Telephone Hour, a romp amongst the kids as they called and talked from window to window around the theater. It was a cacophony and energetic way to introduce the teens in the show. But the ensemble was there through most songs to raise volume and energy and there were numerous ensemble dance numbers that were fun to watch.
The fun of Bye Bye Birdie really came through this cast and production. It harkened back to a simpler, more innocent time, when the most outrageous thing we could discuss was Elvis’ hips! Director John Wilkerson said it best, “Elvis was my motivation for buying a guitar and pantomiming his songs for my third grade class, my first venture into show business.” That was true of many of us.
Whether you want to take a walk back into yesteryear, or see a fun love story where you know the outcome, but don’t know how, or you want to enjoy a fun romp with good music in some comfortable new theater seats, this is a show worth seeing, at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst.
BYE BYE BIRDIE
Artisan Center Theater, 418 East Pipeline Road, Hurst, TX, 76053
Plays through June 4th
Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday at 7:30pm & Saturday at 3:00pm. Ticket prices are Friday/Saturday: $22.00 ($20.00 senior/student, $11.00 children) Monday, Tuesday, Thursday $20.00 adult ($9.00 children). For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.artisanct.com or call the box office at 817-284-1200