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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
For those of us who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there are certain cultural earmarks. We all remember Ed Sullivan and the fact that every set we knew was tuned to him on Sunday nights. We all remember (whether or not we were devoted fans) Elvis, back when he was cool and comparatively un-spangle-y. And we remember when a black-and-white Dick Van Dyke was tripping over an ottoman every week.
Out of that time, and in that time, came the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which Van Dyke won the Tony which propelled him onto television. Vaguely based on the hysteria caused when Elvis was drafted, it managed to make fun of its own time in a lighthearted and tuneful way which has now turned it into a cute and lighthearted period piece. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, its view of working women may remind one more of “Mad Men” than anything relatable today, but that is offset by the general cheer and silliness.
Kim McAfee is the 15-year-old, midwestern small-town fan whose name is chosen for a spectacular event: Conrad Birdie, the heartthrob rocker, will sing to her on The Ed Sullivan Show and then give her his last kiss before reporting to the army. All of this is the machination of Birdie’s manager, Albert Peterson, who has written the song and is trying to make enough money to marry his longtime assistant. The assistant, Rosie Alvarez, is in a duel for Albert’s attentions with his domineering and comically manipulative mother and business partner, Mae. And, of course, neither Kim’s newly acquired boyfriend Hugo, nor her father, are particularly happy to see her kissing a sex symbol on television.
Maggie Anderson sings and dances well, and gives a genuine quality to Kim, which makes a nice antidote to the far-too-old Ann Margaret of the film version. David Aldrete stomps and pouts as the stereotypical father, and has a great moment in the show’s two best songs: Hymn for a Sunday Evening (which apparently embarrassed Ed Sullivan no end), and the oft-repeated “Kids”. Candace Elder oozes understanding as Kim’s mother.
Beth Mendoza has a terrific time as the overblown Mae, right down to the Brooklyn accent. Kevin McDonald really looks the part of the young Elvis-style crooner, black leather jacket and all, as Birdie. Yet, perhaps the most central figures to making the whole show work are Allen Everman’s earnest and intense Albert, and Amber-Sky Skipps’ Rosie. Backed by a strong dancing ensemble, given great numbers to perform by choreographer Hector Guerrero and tight, interesting characterization by director John LaLonde, these two power the storyline.
Skipps has, perhaps, the roughest time, simply because her character was created for one of the greatest dancers ever on Broadway, Chita Rivera. The great dance sequence with a band of shriners is rough, and sometimes lacks the crispness of the other numbers, but her characterization is strong and wins out in the end.
In truth, “Bye Bye Birdie” is fun, but mostly lightweight nostalgia. Its cheerful lyrics, like the charmingly ironic “How Lovely to be a Woman” sung by a teenager, or the show’s most famous number, “Put On a Happy Face,” will leave one bright and bubbly. The show is good for kids, as the most “immoral” moment is Birdie’s hip-swivels, an homage to the part of Elvis that Sullivan wouldn’t show on television. And the food is good – particularly so, this time. So, go take a look. It’s a nice, simple way to celebrate the advent of summer.
What: “Bye Bye Birdie” When: Through July 13, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com