Tuesday, July 24, 2012

High-flying Birdie

The famous "Telephone Hour" from Bye Bye Birdie.
This is just a quick post-mortem on Reagle Music Theatre's Bye Bye Birdie, which closed last weekend.  It was an enjoyable version of this sturdy perennial, even if in the end this production proved rather a strange bird.  The show was packed with talent, which kept the whole thing rolling along - but bizarrely, almost the entire cast was mis-cast, which meant the performers were often spinning their wheels, and it took the show almost its entire first act to get airborne.

It's tempting to blame director Larry Sousa for this - but perhaps he was simply playing the casting hand he was dealt. After all, everyone could do everything they were required to do - just their presences and attitudes were slightly wrong.  Ryan Overberg, for instance (who last rolled through town in SpeakEasy's Xanadu) was just as confidently appealing and eager-to-please here as he was there, but as the eponymous Conrad Birdie is supposed to evince the dark, bad-boy "sincerity" that has thrilled the female teen-aged heart since Elvis, he mostly flailed dramatically.  Indeed, as the all-American girl he was supposed to be seducing, newcomer Gillian Gordon projected such smart self-awareness that she unconsciously undermined the rest of what was left of the pretext of the show.

And then there was the talented Carman Napier, who was playing the Latina firecracker Rosie Alvarez, but who seemed about as Latina as Abie's Irish Rose.  But this mattered less than you'd imagine, as she was playing against young Jacob Sherburne, who was supposed to be channeling an aging mama's-boy, but who seemed much more like a friendly jock who had just wandered in from Boston College - which, I read in the program, was exactly where he had just wandered in from.  Don't get me wrong - I liked all these performers, and they all had talent to burn; but their ensemble was simply too weird for words; no one was relating, and the basic conflicts of the show had gone missing - we were just taking the whole thing on faith.  Director Sousa only really nailed a single lead - TV star Anita Gillette knew just what to do, and how to do it, as that mama's boy's overbearing, prejudiced mama.  But you can't hang a whole musical on what's basically its biggest cameo.

So what do you get with a cast of talented but miscast actors?  Well, for most of Birdie, we got a high-energy (and over-loud) mess; scene after scene slightly misfired, and director Sousa seemed unable to control or shape the dramatic build of the script.  But oddly, things came together in the show's latter half - where as narrative it all but collapses into a series of dance numbers; but as Sousa was originally a choreographer (and apparently a clever, talented one), the weakness of  Birdie's second act actually played to his strengths, as it were, and the show finally took off.  Numbers like "A Lot of Livin' to Do" (below) and "The Shriner's Ballet" proved cleverly conceived, and had a high-spirited kick  (like the clever staging of "The Telephone Hour," above) thanks to Reagle's energetic dancers (and some punchy playing from the orchestra).  I left this Birdie eager to see all these folks take flight again - only in roles, and a show, that better matched their talents.

Gillian Gordon, Ryan Overberg, and dancers in "a Lot of Livin' to Do"

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