Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Educational Effort in “Bye Bye, Birdie” at Fremont Centre Theatre
There are any number of organizations in and around the Los Angeles area which aim to train young people in various aspects of theatrical performance. One of these, which has recently taken up residence at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, is Young Stars Theater, an organization which doesn’t charge for their training sessions, and offers up chances for the more dedicated performers to get into the larger aspects of production by doing all the behind-the-scenes work on shows of their own. It’s an ambitious mission.
The current production of “Bye Bye, Birdie” emphasizes both some of the plusses and some of the traps of this enterprise. One of the down-sides may be overextension, in that they have created two separate companies to perform the show. One, the “Roll Cast” is entirely made up of children and youth. The other, the “Rock Cast” to which critics were invited, claims to be a more traditional combination of adults and teens. The problem stems from having to free up some of the best teenaged performers to play the adults in the all-youth cast. This leaves some supporting roles in the adult-and-teen cast to be played by not-quite-teens, and that can get a bit uncomfortable. More simply, it also dilutes the number of quality performers available in both settings.
The story hasn’t changed, and is set in the traditional 1950s. Teen rock star Conrad Birdie has been drafted (as Elvis was). Albert and Rose, Conrad’s manager and songwriter and his secretary/girlfriend Rose, cook up a plan to give him a sendoff which will allow Albert to move on to a more stable job: a young female fan will be chosen at random to be serenaded with a new farewell song and a goodbye kiss from Conrad himself. And thus, Kim MacAfee’s family in Sweet Apple, Ohio, is descended upon by Conrad, Albert and Rose, surrounded by Birdie fans, and told they will all be on the Ed Sullivan Show. What could go wrong?
Individual performers in the YST production stand out quickly as the show begins. Tara Cox gives Rose the right combination of enthusiasm and frustration, and sings and dances well. As Albert’s guilt-slinging, clingy mother, Stacy Toyon has a ball, and plays the comedy to the hilt. Kurt Loehler’s Albert seems powered by a comic fatalism, which works well enough.
As Conrad Birdie, Matthew Golden grows into the part, ending up with an excellent “One Last Kiss” which sold that entire scene. Meera Sinroja, as the head of the local Conrad Birdie Fan Club sings well and turns what could have been a small part into a focal one.
Tony Prichard has a lot of fun with Kim’s fusty father, while Chloe Lesieur, as Kim’s little brother Randolph, sings very well, performs with real zeal, and pretty much steals the show. As Kim, Clara Daly proves earnest, but still needs to work on volume when she sings. Not that any of the child performers should emulate the vocal cord-damaging belting of an Andrea McArdle, but projection is still important in several cases. Mirai Booth-Ong gives Kim’s mom the appropriate mix of love and frustration.
Many of the other performers just seem to be finding their footing on stage, including Liam Walker as Kim’s boyfriend Hugh. He rarely opens his eyes very much, and doesn’t look at the people he’s supposed to be talking to. Still, in his one moment of significant drama, he steps up well. His fellow young men are indeed very young for some of the girls they’re supposed to be interested, but do what they can. The entire ensemble works well together. Indeed, some of the best moments are ones where everyone is singing, including the signature “Telephone Hour”.
Jack J. Bennett and Gloria Bennett, the husband-and-wife team who operate Young Stars Theater, do just about everything to make this production happen other than performing. Gloria does costumes, lights, sound, stage managing, and musical direction. Jack does set design and construction, and directs. This is economically sound, but perhaps a few more “techies” would be of use.
Though the layout of the piece uses the depth of the FCT stage better than many have, the direction doesn’t take into account the patchy lighting, and people singing major songs wander into the shadows. The set, always a problem in a piece this episodic, creates long pauses between scenes as walls must be moved around furniture. The pre-recorded music which takes the place of an orchestra nobody could fit into that space is electronic and tinny. Even a real piano, recorded, would have given a feel of greater depth.
Still, it’s always fun to see kids really getting into acting. “Bye Bye, Birdie” is light and a bit goofy, and totally appropriate for these young performers to engage in. Their next production is Disney’s “Aladdin, Jr.”, which will likely highlight the best of what they do, and – being a show which isn’t double-cast – allow their best to shine all at once.
What: “Bye Bye, Birdie” When: through October 23, 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; check the website for which cast is performing when Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont St. in South Pasadena How Much: $30 Info: (626) 269-3609 or http://www.YoungStarsTheatre.org