“Times are changing, and you’ve got to go along with them.” So says teenager Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, the 1961 musical inspired by the excitement surrounding rock-and-roll icon Elvis Presley and his 1958 induction into the United States Army. The musical stylistics of this production, currently presented by the Good Shepherd Players at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fairfax, showcase the changes in American musical tastes from Broadway music to rock and roll. Both are well represented in this eclectic show, which has much to recommend it.
The Good Shepherd Players present one Broadway-style musical per year as part of this church’s local mission to entertain while also “building fellowship within the church community as well as the larger community” around it. This reviewer has seen two earlier productions, Oliver! and The Music Man, but the current production of Birdie, directed by Nancy Lavallee, is certainly the most ambitious of the three, particularly regarding the size of the orchestra. Conducted by Mitch Bassman, the pit orchestra provides good renditions of the show’s Broadway-style numbers such as “Put on a Happy Face” and “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.” The band really hits its stride, however, with the musical’s rock-and-roll oriented numbers such as “One Last Kiss.”
Caitlin Donahue stars as Kim MacAfee, the teenage girl chosen to receive “One Last Kiss” before pop singer Conrad Birdie is drafted into the US Army; this is part of a publicity stunt for the 1950’s-era Ed Sullivan television show. A recent graduate of George Mason University in Fairfax, Caitlin is in sweet and expressive voice for solo numbers such as “How Lovely to Be a Woman.” Another standout performer is Tricia Tyrell as Rosie Alvarez, the secretary of Birdie manager Albert Peterson (Greg LaNave). Tricia provides lively entertainment in the “Backroom at Maude’s” number for the humorous “Shriner Ballet” portion of the show.
The popularity of fraternities such as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine is just one staple of 1950’s era life herein presented: there are constant references to ashtrays and projections of small-town America with classic 50’s automobiles. And, of course, Ed Sullivan. In one scene, the MacAfee family presents “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.” The style is a church hymn, but the venerated subject is Ed Sullivan.
The quartet of MacAfee family members is then joined by a second quartet dressed in church choir robes. This is an especially strong moment in the production: Bye Bye Birdie is (per the program notes) a “satire of the 1950’s, crafted with the fondest affection for the time and its people.” That may be, but it is at the same time a social commentary on how celebrity culture has replaced traditional values – a theme which continues to be relevant today. To see this scene enacted by a religiously-oriented group such as Good Shepherd in a church setting provides additional resonance. “Speak to us, oh beautiful one!” says one teenage girl to Conrad Birdie, in a rapture usually reserved for things divine.
This production of Bye Bye Birdie is very strong in terms of staging, as in its recreation of a television studio of the 1950’s for the Ed Sullivan Show. Especially clever is the routine for “Telephone Hour,” in which teenagers speak back and forth on phones in colorful boxes assembled on the stage next to one another. Perhaps this is an allusion to split-screen telephone conversations in the Doris Day-Rock Hudson film Pillow Talk released in 1959, the same year in which Bye Bye Birdie takes place.
The enthusiasm of everyone involved in the production is commendable and infectious. Before the production begins, a master of ceremonies explains exegetically how the plot is based on Elvis Presley’s 1958 induction into the armed forces and the teen reaction which resulted. The show also offers an opportunity for family out with older family members (and/or mid-century history buffs!), as there are periodic cultural references that might be lost on younger audiences. An instance is when Albert Peterson’s mother Mae (Carol St. Germain) says of her son’s secretary Rosie that “She looks like [1930’s film actress] Margo when they take her out of Shangri-La,” referring to the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon. Many will not understand that Mae is insulting Rosie by implying she looks 100 years old! A glossary of such topical references in the program notes might help, much as they are often included in program notes to productions of Shakespeare.
In sum, with its various musical styles and witty social satire, Bye Bye Birdie is a challenging show to stage, and the Good Shepherd Players give it their all for an enjoyable and memorable evening’s entertainment. The show only runs through March 31, so play-goers are encouraged to visit the website www.goodshperherdplayers.com for times as well as further information.