Reviewed by Carolyn M. Gillespie
Director Kay Kelly, the moving force behind the multi-generational Kearsley Park Players, turns her considerable energies to the 1960 musical satire Bye Bye Birdie, book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adam. Kelly has assembled another of her trademark eclectic casts that range from seasoned veterans of the local amateur circuit to the greenest of first timers to tackle this tricky musical presented this weekend only at the historic Horton-Colwell Opera House at Crossroads Village in Flint. The opera house, constructed in 1869 in Fenton was moved to its present location in the late 1970’s. Opening night found a comfortably filled house despite the rain.
As I was waiting in the lobby for the house to open Thursday, I heard Ms. Kelly give one last bit of advice to her company members, “Above all, have fun and tell the story.” For those of you who don’t know the story, here it is in a nutshell: New York talent agent/song-writer Albert Peterson (Jason Garza) finds himself near financial ruin when his star talent, rock idol Conrad Birdie (Aaron McCoy-Jacobs) gets drafted (this is 1958!). Off-again on-again girlfriend/secretary Rosie Alvarez (Marie Van Horn) comes up with a scheme to save the day. They will pick a random fan to receive a farewell kiss from Birdie when he sings Albert’s yet-to-be-written song One Last Kiss live on the Ed Sullivan Show. Fifteen-year -old Kim McAfee (Allison Kimber) from Sweet Apple, Ohio is the lucky girl – but – oh, no! – she just got pinned to the tenacious Hugo Peabody (Justin Wetenhall)! Throw in Peterson’s meddling, martyred mother (Rita Vater-Darnton), Kim’s very Midwestern family (Kim Streby,Victor Galea, and Simon Kimber), and a troop of frenzied fans and locals and you’ve got a formula for comic disaster as the New York crowd invades little Sweetwater and billet themselves at the McAfee residence.
There’s a lot of build-up to the entrance of Aaron McCoy-Jacobs’ Birdie who, even when he finally appears, is prevented from speaking a word by his nervous handlers. It’s a delightful surprise to hear a really powerful voice issue forth from the diminutive McCoy-Jacobs as he tries to spin his bad-boy image into something more Sincere. Allison Kimber as Kim is a perfect match for him with a lovely young voice and the ability to deliver a line like, “I’m 15 years old and it’s time to settle down.” with perfect sincerity herself. Kim Streby is a most plausible mother, her rich voice helping keep the sometimes intonation-challenged chorus on track, and Victor Galea captures the ambivalence of all fathers everywhere as they sing Kids (“whatever happened to kids today?”). But the heart of the show belongs to Garza and Van Horn whose strong performances keep us rooting for their relationship to survive the trials inflicted upon it by outside forces.
Costumes and scenery nod to the late-50’s with a kind of “let’s do a show in my garage” aesthetic. Look for the pastel princess phones in The Telephone Hour. Does anything date apiece more precisely than technology? The show does contain a number of period jokes about gender and ethnicity that warrant some wincing. On the other hand, it’s really refreshing to hear acoustic musical treatments. A few performances are self-conscious and over-the-top, but when the actors have specific objectives to accomplish, they are at their best. Don’t expect high style or great precision; just enjoy this bit of Americana performed by people who are clearly having fun telling a story.