Bishopshalt Operatic and Dramatic Society “Bye Bye Birdie” 7th December 2007 Bishopshalt School Tony Austin When “Bye Bye Birdie” came out in 1960, everyone knew about “The Draft” (National Service over here) and how the greatest Rock Star Elvis Presley had been called up to serve in the American Army, about the worries of the older generation regarding the unwholesome influences of Rock and Roll and that even the most innocent of its exponents were going to lead their children into smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual depravity, instead of them watching the anodyne TV shows of the time like the one fronted by Ed Sullivan (a familiar name here, even though his Saturday Night show never came to this country). Wonderful subjects for a send-up musical, brilliantly realised by a new, young writing team. But it has rarely been performed since that time, probably because those subjects soon became history rather than everyday concerns, but also because of the show’s odd construction, with the opening scene for just two characters introducing a lot of plot (and a song about an English Teacher!) giving no possibility of a production number to start things with a bang. Congratulations to Director LUKE JONES and Music Director STUART KING for solving all the problems at a stroke! While we were still in the school foyer there was a near riot as cast members in the guise of Newsboys surrounded us with placards and “Extra! Extra!” sales pitches telling of Conrad Birdie’s getting to No 1 in the charts, and groups of girls screaming and chanting the “We Love You Conrad” song with full-throated passion. And inside the auditorium there was Ed Sullivan on screen in genuine old TV footage (with the terrible adverts of the period) introducing an appearance (probably by Elvis himself) carefully doctored to refer to Conrad Birdie and cutting to footage of an actual performance by Birdie and his guitar-player of “Ugga Bugga Boo”, a superbly meaningless period song newly written by Stuart and accompanied by him, CONNOR MANGAN and the chorus of Teen Screamers. And during the overture, brilliantly played by the superb 20- strong BAND, we were taken further into the doubtful Birdie career by projected newspaper images, spiralling down in typical style of films of the period and ending with an evocative spotlit silhouette of the Rock Star surrounded by his young fans. Brilliant! I don’t know how contributions to the whole sequence were split among the PRODUCTION TEAM, but I congratulate every one of them. We had been thoroughly entertained (and educated) and the show hadn’t even started. And the real first scene of the show was no problem played at a tremendous pace by the two leads while getting over all we needed to know about the finances of the Almaelou Company, Mama, the dead dog, Conrad and the inspiration for his one last kiss, as well as their own relationship and hang-ups, with never a pause before cues were picked up, especially noticeable in the “English Teacher” number which kept stopping for dialogue and restarting all without a moment’s hesitation. BRADLEY COOK as Albert had established himself as a charming though nervous, mother- dominated wimp, but soon showed authority over the Birdie cheerleaders and then branched out into a great song and dance for “Put on a Happy Face”, leading the two sad girls and the eleven tappers in fine style. Positive and clear through “A Healthy Normal American Boy” in preventing Birdie (with Rosie’s help) from saying the wrong thing, he reverted to type under the almost irresistible influence of his mother – and the wiles of Gloria Rasputin. At the mayhem in the TV studio, his rage and then despair were realistically shown, as was the horror of realising he was still on live TV. In his Act 2 panic to find the missing Rosie, his earlier appeasement policy to his mother was convincingly abandoned and, plainly the new Albert Peterson, he was masterful in getting her and Birdie onto the train while ensuring that he and Rosie missed it, with just enough time to sing the bouncy “Rosie”, followed by a superbly lyrical dance with Fred Astaire lifts, before taking her off to Iowa to be Mrs Peterson, the English Teacher’s wife. A superb performance, which would have won approval from Dick van Dyke, the original Albert on stage and screen. JO SHAH as Rosie was equally impressive in the star part written for Chita Rivera, putting over the character as positive and down-to-earth and showing just how to deliver a punch line. She made great comedy out of the indignities of the first Act when being put upon by Albert and his mother (injecting real venom into the “Ways to Kill a Man” Dream Ballet), while still giving him loyal support as in the “American Boy” number, before finally turning with “Yes, Hugo, I think you can” (do something for me) and “You’re not alone, Albert, you’re on TV” after the Birdie knock-out, both memorably delivered in character. The second Act really belonged to her, from “What Did I Ever See in Him?” sung with real feeling, through the comic scene at Maude’s leading directly into the Shriners’ meeting where she galvanised the boys and led them in the gloriously eccentric Egyptian-inspired dance. All of which she outshone with her dismissal of Mama and her performance of “Spanish Rose”, the song plainly written to be Miss Rivera’s starring “eleven- o’clock number”, singing and dancing and then leading the massed girls with tremendous verve, and being (as required) more Spanish than the Spanish. And with the further triumph of yet another style of dancing in the final “Rosie” number, hers was a truly magnificent achievement. LAKESHA CAMMOCK’s performance as Mama was a truly original creation (as opposed to the more usual pseudo-pathetic old woman), a glamorous and feisty lady, fluently persuasive and powerfully manipulative, played with just the right amount of caricature to make her hugely comic, and performing wonderful physical contortions to go with her “Conrad, have you ever thought of a more mature woman”, all in super contrast to JACK O’TOOLE’s Birdie, where the comedy came from him looking confused (an expression he beautifully held despite what went on around him) and not speaking (or being stopped from doing so), while the quality of his delivery of “Honestly Sincere”, “One Last Kiss” and “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do” easily explained the character’s chart successes, and his occasional dialogue lines were given perfectly in character. Kim MacAfee gave ALEX GRANT a wonderful part as the fifteen-year-old joyfully singing “How Lovely to Be a Woman” but soon returned to childhood by the choice of her for Birdie’s last kiss. Her later assurance to Hugo that he was her “One Boy” was brilliantly performed, with her seven- girl backing group adding to the gentle movement and superb harmonies and the swoon at the name of “Conrad Birdie” as Hugo was looking away beautifully managed. Her contributions to “What Did I Ever See in Him?” and “Got a Lot of Livin’” were well put over, as was her dialogue right through to the Ice House profession “I know the score; I even know some of the words”. Brilliant. As Mrs Doris MacAfee, CHELSEY SEYMOUR got her comedy over with clear dialogue and characterisation both as the anxious mother and as the star-struck American wanting to be seen on TV (how like today, although in a different style of programme!), and supported her husband MICHAEL VINEY both in the “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” and in his well-sung, acted and danced protest about the “Kids” of the day, the climax of a role in which he had managed to portray a fifty-year-old impeccably through many changes of mood, even making the TV studio intrusions seem almost plausible and very funny. CRAIG HAMMOND as young Randolph, not yet old enough to be a teenage rebel and with views (and a hairstyle) mimicking those of his father, got no thanks from him (but lots of laughs from us) for expressing them, and did well leading the “Kids” reprise with the Townsfolk. MARCUS BOND as Hugo, knew just how to get a laugh from his “several headaches and a nosebleed” and plainly didn’t care “how ordinary or common” he was, smiling blissfully unaware of Kim fainting, and made an impact not only on Birdie’s chin and the (shining new?) galvanised dustbin but also on us with each one of his entrances and utterances pitched exactly in character. And NATALIE FANNING had a great time in her short scene as Gloria Rasputin, charming Albert to the delight of Mama and the chagrin of Rose, and demonstrating her tapping prowess before going down into jumped splits (cleverly mocked) and staying down until gradually pulled by them to her feet in a wonderfully comic touch. It is difficult to deal adequately with the immense contribution made to the show by the REST OF THE CAST since there are probably more named parts in this script than in any other musical, many with odd lines here and there, some only involved as members of groups (whose component parts may change at different times) and many whose credits in the programme assign at least two roles to them. I can only mention some of the pieces of the show which remain with me: • TUDOR WILLIAMS as Birdie’s guitar man in quite the strangest non-speaking part, but ever-present unobtrusively strumming his guitar, perhaps as a comment on the lack of musical skills of Rock stars then? The part was there even in the West End production when Birdie was played by real Rock Star Marty Wilde (father of singer Kim Wilde). • The TELEPHONE HOUR TEENS blocking the phone lines of Sweet Apple, Ohio with their news about Kim and Hugo put over from their pads, represented by a series of blocks mounted to the full height of the stage (as in the original London production). • JON BILLINS as Harvey Johnson (always identifiable as the only boy in shorts) in that scene, in the dancing numbers and showing enthusiastic characterisation throughout. • HANNAH DILLAMORE as Ursula Merkel, with clarity and expression in all her lines which she may well have learned from JESS UZZELL, similarly impressive as her mother. • JESSICA HILL, KAYLEIGH HUNT, RACHEL DAVIES, TANISHA HODGE, PATRYCJA MARCZEWSKA and possibly others as the screaming teens in New York. • THE SAME FIVE and all the others including MICHAEL HINDMARSH, JESS UZZELL, GEORGE MCCANN and LUKE GARDNER who as the adults in Sweet Apple were as keen to get close to Birdie as their children, and joined in as the dancing and singing chorus for the reprise of “Kids” as well as being the impressive group of concerned parents in the second Act looking for the missing teenagers. • TERRI ROSE and KAREN PIKE as the two sad girls who danced so well soft shoe with Albert in “Put on a Happy Face”. • The ELEVEN GIRL TAP DANCERS who joined them to complete the memorable number. • The lovely TRAIN FLAT moving across stage for the journey from New York to Ohio. • The DIFFERENT SCREAMING TEENS when they reached Sweet Apple., including HANNAH, AILEEN ASHE, JESSICA HOWARD, CANDICE POOL, SHANNON SULLIVAN, KRISTY PARNHAM, KAYLEIGH BILLINS and MICHAELA SAUNDERS, and their super Birdie-worshipping dialogue and 4724 renditions of “We Love You Birdie”. • The SEVEN GIRLS as already mentioned harmonising beautifully in “One Boy”. • The non-PC comedy from (I think) RACHEL DAVIES as Phyllis in the wheelchair. • MAX DINCH as Mayor Bryson presenting the golden key given by the Brass Works, until interrupted by more screams, and later leading the Shriners’ meeting and returning rather too close to Rosie to the horror of NADINE DINCH as the Mayoress, earlier one of the first and worst affected by Birdie and constantly keeling over. • The frenetic dance by EVERYONE to “Honestly Sincere” ending in their gradual collapse, followed in the half light by the contrast of separate anonymous anxious voices as they searched through those still unconscious, beautifully timed so as to be absolutely hilarious. • MICHAEL HINDMARSH as Mr Johnson for very clear and well expressed lines on this and various other occasions. • The GIRLS filling the aisles as a heavenly chorus for the Ed Sullivan Hymn and again as a less heavenly one during “One Last Kiss” with beautifully coordinated movements. • The GIRL DANCERS in the Dream Ballet showing how to kill Albert (represented by one of them in a costume similar to his). • EVERYONE INVOLVED in the apparent chaos of the TV Studio, where every move worked because they all knew exactly what they were doing. • The tremendous dance by the MASSED TEENS filling the stage to “Got a Lot of Livin’”, and the way they were collected by their anxious parents at the end. • RAJIV KARIA making a huge impression as Maude, the bar owner, in his brief scene - a real character actor - and his BOY WAITER with his silent comment on bar hygiene. • ALL THE BOYS as Shriners, stunned by Rosie’a intrusion into their meeting, but then led by her into an eccentric dance routine with its roots in the original Egyptian idea (from their Fez headgear) but spiralling (literally) from invention to invention, brilliantly conceived and danced with complete assurance, including their facial expressions, and ending with Rosie carried aloft at arms’ length. The best choreography for massed males I have ever seen. • THE GIRL DANCERS in their glorious red and black costumes, dancing in more conventional manner, brilliantly stylish and together, to complete the Spanish atmosphere for “Spanish Rose”, the high point of a series of high points in a fantastic show. • And finally, a word for all those playing BACKGROUND PARTS as newsmen, railway officials and travellers, TV studio workers, policemen and the like, without star billing but essential to the authenticity of their scenes and to the success of the show. I am aware from my lack of notes during the dance numbers that my eyes were kept fixed on the stage so as not to miss any part of them, but even if I had tried to make notes I’m afraid I should not have had the words to describe all the movements or all the styles. What I can confirm is that I saw a huge variety of styles, no one who was not fully involved when dancing, no one unable to perform the movements required and no one ever making a mistake. A tribute to Choreographer JANE GILLARD’s skill and invention (with help from assistant Choreographers NATALIE FANNING and RACHEL OWENS) and to the thorough rehearsal process, as well as to the performers. Technically, the production also stretched BODS and their dedicated helpers to new heights, with scenery cleverly suggesting the many locations but also the practical “Telephone Hour” edifice and the two-level MacAfee home (brilliant work by designers MARGARET TAPERELL and VICKY GEE and the uncredited CONSTRUCTION TEAM) shifted instantaneously by the CREW (CHRIS McMULLEN, LAURENCE BROWN, LIZZY PETTS, PENNY CHATE, CHRIS HOSTEIN, KIRSTY TAYLOR, HELEN FARMER, ABIGAIL JONES and JOANNE COLLYER) under SM DIKSHA PARMAR and ASM CHRIS ALARU. Set dressing and Props by JACQUI KIRKPATRICK, FRANCES SINCLAIR and KERRY COBURN and the incredible array of costumes by HEATHER SAUNDERS and KERRY MAGEE contributed greatly, as did the atmospheric lighting operated by JACK HOPE (with wonderful use of the colour red, as well as spotlights – perhaps directed by some already named as CREW) and the increasingly important sound enhancement superbly controlled by MICHAEL SMITH, all under the control of Design and Technical Director TERRY SHARP and Assistant Director KERRY MAGEE. A final word of congratulation to STUART KING for the magnificent music and singing throughout, to LUKE JONES for the concept and direction, rehearsed to perfection to give an amazingly pacy result, but with just the right quieter and slower bits to contrast with the excitement, and to both for solving the usual loss of pace in the second Act by cutting “Baby, Talk to Me”. And my thanks to DAVID BOCOCK for inviting me and my wife to what you all turned into our best Christmas treat ever. How will you possibly be able to better this next year?
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