Thursday, February 15, 2007

Bye Bye, Birdie

'Bye Bye Birdie,' Hello Ingenuity:
Teen-Idol Musical Gets a Makeover
By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 29, 2004; Page C08

It's not easy to pull off the show tune "How Lovely to Be a Woman." With lyrics that ruminate on how excellent it is to have great skin and a rockin' body -- in general, "that happy grown-up female feeling" -- the perky "Bye Bye Birdie" melody is best served by a performer with a strong presence, someone with magnetic pluck and unabashed self-confidence. It requires, in other words, a crooner with real cojones.

At least that's what the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington believes. Its weekend-long production of "Bye Bye Birdie" at Lisner Auditorium presented the 1960 Broadway musical with a twist: an all-male cast. Instead of simply offering men in drag, however, the GMCW decided to switch "Birdie's" main female roles to gay ones. At Saturday evening's performance, the approach proved to be a stroke of brilliance that added both campiness and social commentary to a show that's previously offered nothing but cheese.

Under the direction of John Moran, the story essentially remains the same. It's 1959, and struggling songwriter Albert Peterson (Chuck Walker) finds his shaky world falling apart when teen-dream pop star Conrad Birdie (Brandon Dubroc) gets drafted into the Army. Albert's longtime lover/secretary, Rosie (Justin Zimmerman), is tired of Albert putting his work -- and his bear of a mommy -- before their relationship, but gives him an idea that could finally bring him recognition: arranging an "Ed Sullivan Show" send-off for Birdie in which the rocker will plant one on some lucky fan and then cap the appearance with Albert's as-yet-unwritten new song, "One Last Kiss." Portrayed on Broadway by Susan Watson and in the 1963 movie adaptation by Ann-Margret, chosen fan Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio, here was played by Owen Taggart as a swooning 15-year-old boy -- and ultimate drama queen.

Taggart's exaggerated performance as a teenager who's equally overwhelmed by the jealousy of a boyfriend and the vocal stylings of Mr. Birdie was just one of the many perfect notes in GMCW's entertaining and occasionally bawdy production. The most impressive aspect about "Bye Bye Birdie" was its sheer scale: Whether the award-winning chorus was flooding the stage in an energetic reprise of "The Telephone Hour" or simply heard belting out the Conrad Birdie theme song during the show's overture, its 100-plus members gave depth and power to numbers that otherwise aren't all that memorable.

"Birdie's" humor, already strong with sharply drawn characters such as Albert's melodramatic, guilt-inducing mother (played to wild applause by Jimmy Galdieri) and the Elvis-inspired, gyrating Birdie, received a fresh layer of comedy -- and raciness -- through GMCW's approach. One particularly riotous added scene had Sweet Apple's lisping mayor (Dwight DeKeyser) presiding with a riding crop over a group of leather-clad couples, whose activities were interrupted by a newly single and ready-to-play Rosie: As an instrumental jaunt plays, Rosie crawls under the banquet-length table where the men are seated -- until something gets them bouncing up on their feet in quick succession, like a naughty game of Whac-a-Mole.

GMCW also took advantage of recent political developments to make "Birdie's" portrayal of a world in which sexual orientation doesn't matter especially meaningful. As in the original, Albert and Rosie end up together, though here they head to Multnomah County, Ore., to make each other respectable. The very mention of the state had the full Lisner house erupting in cheers, adding a touching aspect to an evening that was flashy, funny and vulgar -- great musical theater.

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