Bye Bye Birdie soars at Hart House Theatre

Bye Bye Birdie, this year’s UC Follies production, is set in sunny 1950s America, where New Yorker Albert Peterson (Matt Selby) makes a living writing bubblegum pop tunes for Elvis-like heartthrob Conrad Birdie. But when Birdie gets drafted, Albert’s pressed to change his line of business.

His secretary and love interest, Rose (Jessica Sherman), wants him to give up music and settle down as an English teacher.

But for one final publicity stunt, she comes up with the idea of having Conrad kiss one lucky girl goodbye before he heads off to boot camp.

The lucky girl turns out to be Kim Macafee (Shayna Levitan) of Sweet Apple, Ohio. As the name suggests, there’s not a bad apple in sight—the town is full of shiny-faced Brady Bunch archetypes who wear cardigans and watch The Ed Sullivan Show religiously. Kim’s a member of the Conrad Birdie fan club, a group of wide-eyed teenage girls who scream uncontrollably at the mention of Conrad’s name. Not surprisingly, the town’s Midwestern ordinariness is knocked off balance once Conrad and his swiveling hips arrive. Unbeknownst to them, Conrad is little more than a drunk who happens to be able to carry a tune.

Like most other musicals, Bye Bye Birdie doesn’t have an elaborate plot, only scenes that conveniently segue into catchy songs. And that’s where the production shines. From the lead actors to the barroom quartet, the singing was remarkably impressive.

In particular, Kim’s voice shone in her rendition of “One Boy,” where she pledges her love to boyfriend Hugo so he won’t become jealous of Conrad. Then there’s “Rose,” a tango-inspired number where Rose shows off her vocal talents as she cha-cha-chas across the stage.

Besides the main characters, many others gave impressive performances. As Albert’s mother, Mae Peterson (Elenna Mosoff) comes off as melodramatic but endearing, even as she bemoans Albert’s marriage to Rose and condemns him for shutting down the business. Claire Burns is irresistible as Ursula Merkle, a die-hard Birdie fan who demonstrates her devotion by leading the girls in singing “We Love You, Conrad” ten thousand times. And watch for the colourful Gloria Rasputin (Carly Fielding), who delivers a brief but show-stopping tap routine in the second act.

Having only rehearsed since last October, the cast does a commendable job of pulling off several full-cast dance numbers with precision and energy. Early on, the girls of Sweet Apple sing about their preoccupations—who has a steady, who’s got “pinned”—in a whimsical song-and-dance sequence involving substantial choreography among the twenty-plus bodies on stage.

A particularly memorable scene is the town gathering where Conrad makes his first appearance and Albert leads everyone to agree Conrad’s just a “fine, upstanding, patriotic, healthy normal American boy.” The actors are lined up on either side of Conrad while he blithely scratches his crotch and looks on.

Along with some fancy costumes and the able accompaniment of the orchestra tucked in the back of the stage, Bye Bye Birdie is a treat for eye and ear.

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