“Bye Bye Birdie” was never meant to be taken terribly seriously. The minor bit of 1960 froth became an unlikely major Broadway hit, with a subsequent successful movie version.
The late 1950s world which produced the softly sarcastic musical feels alternately quaint and irritating now. In director Glenn Casale’s bright, playful production now at Music Circus, the outdated sensibilities neutralized several strong performances and a handful of fine, memorable songs.
Casale effectively places “Birdie” in a cleaner, simpler time, but even the specificity of his lens and charismatic energy of his large cast can’t eliminate the play’s potholes. The plot derives from the arcane “woman trying to get her man to marry her” genre. As much currency as that might have once carried, it’s a dull conceit now.
Making it more problematic is the pair involved here. You never feel Janine DiVita’s dynamic Rosie Alvarez should or would settle for Larry Raben’s wimpy Albert Peterson. There’s no reason except that it says so in Michael Stewart’s book. (The tuneful songs have music by Charles Strouse and clever lyrics by Lee Adams.)
Rosie’s the heart, soul and brains behind Albert’s musical production company. He’s the male front, her boss, and her 8-year-long boyfriend. Now that their main (only) asset, Elvis-lite singer Conrad Birdie (Nathaniel Hackmann), has been drafted into the Army, there’s no reason to keep the business propped up.
Well, there is one, actually: Albert’s passive-aggressive, long-suffering mother, Mae (Mary-Pat Green). Mae clutches Albert and his business in an extended death grip. Albert’s inability to separate from Mae keeps his relationship with Rosie from connecting. Then there’s Mae’s boorish racism, which gets played for laughs yet feels more awkward than comedic.
It’s Rosie’s idea to monetize the moment around Birdie’s induction that brings them Sweet Apple, Ohio. His “last kiss” will be broadcast on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
The big-voiced Hackmann makes the loutish Birdie compelling with a clever comic performance, and his terrific singing gives the character a star-quality vibe. “Honestly Sincere” and “One Last Kiss” with Birdie and his adoring fans are terrific musical theater set pieces, showing director Casale’s staging wizardry in the round.
Amanda Jane Cooper’s earnest Kim MacAfee will receive Birdie’s last kiss and the commotion puts her father, the comically arch Stuart Marland, into a tizzy reflected by the classic song “Kids.” The family comes together, though, for the splendid “Hymn for a Sunday Evening (Ed Sullivan).”
There are several more outstanding songs in the score, all well sung by the cast, including “Put On a Happy Face” and “Rosie” by Raben and the opening “An English Teacher” by DiVita.
However, the “How to Kill A Man” ballet has been cut from the production, while one wishes the condescending “Spanish Rose” had been excised instead. As much as the song mocks the stereotypes placed on Rosie, the number feels strained.
The smart, distinctive costumes were designed by Mark Koss. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and the audience and cast both looked on the entertaining bright side of the production.
Bye Bye Birdie
- What: A rock ’n’ roll star arrives in a small town to publicize his Army draft departure by sharing “one last kiss” with a fan. Glenn Casale directs, with Janine DiVita and Larry Raben starring.
- When: Continues nightly at 7:30 with 2 p.m. matinees on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through July 12.
- Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
- Tickets: $43-$80
- Information: (916) 557-1999, www.SacramentoMusicCircus.com
- Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission