'Birdie,' an oddly sweet voice from past

August 06, 1993|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

So much has changed in America since "Bye Bye Birdie" opened on Broadway in 1960 that this musical comedy now seems like a time capsule of Eisenhower-era values. Were we ever really this gosh darn wholesome, or was it all a dream?

Though never completely successful in immersing us in the goofier cultural manifestations of that era, the Liberty Showcase Theatre production of "Bye Bye Birdie" does come across with the basic frothy goods.

The plot's breathlessly silly excitement revolves around an Elvis clone named Conrad Birdie whose every pelvis shake makes national headlines. His impending induction into the Army means that another kind of army -- this one made up of shrieking teen-age girls -- is about to be denied a singing god. Conrad's manager concocts a promotional scheme in which the star will plant one last civilian kiss on an adolescent girl's cheek before going into the Army. You can imagine the buzz that goes through Sweet Apple, Ohio, when a fresh-faced girl there is picked for the kiss.

If "Bye Bye Birdie" remains charming, it's because the book by Michael Stewart is knowingly cornball and the Charles Strouse score manages to send up its subject while allowing for some genuine sentiment.

But if the Liberty Showcase production doesn't quite click, it's partly because it doesn't entirely trust the lightweight strength of the material. Director Ray Thompson has prefaced the show with a magic act featuring characters named Boris and Natasha running through standard long-ribbon-concealed-in-the-hat routines. Presumably, the magic act is meant to warm up the audience for a musical that is itself structured a bit like an Ed Sullivan-type TV variety show. But when a musical has as zesty an overture as Strouse's for "Bye Bye Birdie," why delay it for anything?

Hindering this production throughout the evening are the slides projected onto a screen to one side of the stage. Although these images of girls going bonkers over Birdie are the sort of mass media supplement encouraged by the script, the black-and-white slides are often so murky you're not quite sure what you're looking at. Another technical shortcoming is a sound system that, though adequate, tends to make voices seem distant and hollow.

The Liberty Showcase production is at its best when it simply unleashes its community theater enthusiasm in the service of a musical that is all about youthful high jinks. When the cast of 45 rushes through the Randallstown High School theater aisles shouting about Birdie, it's delightfully ear-piercing noise. True, the 20-piece orchestra could be sharper, but they're having a swell time and it helps put us in the right mood, too.

As Birdie's manager, John Parry is so lanky and good-natured that he inevitably reminds one of the very tall guy who played the same role at the Lyric Opera House last year, Tommy Tune. Parry's happy-go-lucky rendition of "Put on a Happy Face" is a high point of this production. As the manager's secretary, June Kolodner initially could use some more oomph in her performance; she picks up steam as the evening goes on.

Among others, the manager's mother is written as a stereotypical Jewish mother and Billi Dale has the good sense not to soften what is meant as boisterous ethnic cliche. Stephanie Folkart is suitably sweet as the girl selected to get a kiss from Conrad Birdie; and as the T-shirted and leather jacketed singer, Carlton League puts over "One Last Kiss" as if delivering it directly from the '50s.

"Bye Bye Birdie"

Where: Liberty Showcase Theatre, Randallstown High School theater, 4000 Offutt Road

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Aug. 8 matinee; through Aug. 14

Tickets: $8, $6 for children and seniors

Call: (410) 653-2917

**

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