Theater Review: BYE BYE BIRDIE (Broadway Center Stage at the Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center)

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by Lisa Troshinsky on June 10, 2024

in Theater-D.C.


Broadway Center Stage’s production of Bye Bye Birdie, the 1960 musical comedy smash currently at The Kennedy Center, is delightfully corny, schmaltzy, and yes, hysterically funny. Broadway superstars Christian Borle as the goofy, lovable Albert Peterson (originally played by the now 98-year-old Dick Van Dyke) and Krysta Rodriguez as his sultry but frustrated love interest Rose Alvarez are a match made in heaven. The large accompanying cast is phenomenal, including Richard Kind and Caroline Aaron. Chita Rivera, the original Rose and to whom this production is dedicated, would be proud. If you packed an ounce more fun into this summer sizzler, it would explode. But it only runs through June 15, so if you want to see a sublime production that rivals anything on Broadway, act fast before it says bye bye.

Christian Borle and Krysta Rodriguez
Christian Borle

A cascading, minute-by-minute hit, Bye Bye Birdie is a showcase for happiness even as it merrily mocks the pseudo-innocent “togetherness” of the Eisenhower Era and the scary advent of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley’s name never gets mentioned in the musical, but, no question, the superstar’s two-year draft into the Army in 1958 is a headline the show trades on and sends up. Teen dream Conrad Birdie is clearly “The King,” pulsating pelvis and all. Equally plausible is his shameless PR journey to Sweet Apple, Ohio to give a pre-enlistment “one last kiss” to lucky Kim MacAfee, a Sandra Dee-wanna-be. And it’s all gonna be live, on Sunday night’s vastly popular Ed Sullivan Show no less.

Sweet Apple Teens

Plot-wise, this is no Hairspray: The storyline is pell-mell and hit-and-miss, with the TV denouement occurring too early and the final duet a bit anticlimactic. But Charles Strouse’s gorgeous songs are absolute delights, Michael Stewart’s entertaining book is sitcom sharp with quick-witted one-liners, and Lee Adams’ lyrics both exploit and spoof the feel-good wholesomeness of this whitebread fantasy. The iconic music is performed by the 22-member Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, who are on stage throughout, led by Music Director John Bell, who brings stunning life to Robert Ginzler’s thrilling orchestrations, with additional instrumentation by Josh Crayton.

Ashlyn Maddox

Peterson is a New York-based songwriter and head of the struggling Al-Mae-Lou Music firm, when his superstar client and teen idol, Conrad Birdie, is drafted into the Army. Peterson’s long-suffering girlfriend and secretary, Rose, who longs for Peterson to become a respectable English teacher – as opposed to a tawdry music producer –  comes up with a last-ditch publicity stunt to have Birdie record and perform a song titled “One Last Kiss” and give a real kiss to a random fan club member on the Ed Sullivan Show. 16-year-old Kim MacAfee (Ashlyn Maddox) of Sweet Apple, Ohio — called the Bellybutton of America — is selected to be kissed by Birdie.

Miguel Gil and Ashlyn Maddox

Kim, now being the mature woman that she is, had decided to give up her Conrad Birdie fan club status (complete with the Conrad Birdie pledge and scream) and set her sights on “settling down” with her now steady Hugo Peabody (Miguel Gil). She sweetly sings in “How Lovely to be a Woman” that she has one job, “to pick out a man and train him” to be the man she always wanted. That is her stance, until, of course, she finds out she will be kissed by the intoxicating Conrad Birdie himself.

Christian Borle and Caroline Aaron

A major hurdle to Albert and Rosie getting hitched is the fact that Albert’s overbearing and sassy mother Mae (played by the hysterically funny Caroline Aaron) doesn’t approve of Rosie, due to her Hispanic heritage. Mae, a twist on the dirty old man persona, tries to come onto Birdie (played by the amusing, spry, hip thrusting Ephraim Sykes), asking him how he feels about older women and showing him her leg to tempt him, to which he replies, “You better have that looked at!” Mae is forever threatening to kill herself if Albert doesn’t do what she wants, and in one exit she instructs him to always wear his “rubbers”; he questions “galoshes?” and she yells, “those too!”

"The Telephone Hour"

There’s not a wrong note, weak spot, bad move or lost opportunity in Broadway Center Stage’s deliriously delightful, well-worth-the-wait revival. Too smart to be sentimental, it brims with showbiz wonders, made all the better by Denis Jones’s jazzy choreography. Perhaps the most clever of the dance numbers is “The Telephone Hour,” with Sweet Apple teens catching up on the latest gossip about Kim and Hugo, who are now going steady. Jones’s ingenious choreography has each teen holding the receiver of a wall phone, complete with phone cord, which they use as props to share, climb over and under and around each other, without skipping a beat.

Henry Kirk, Richard Kind, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Ashlyn Maddox, and Company

Another sweet dance sequence is to the famous standard “Put on a Happy Face” performed by Borle, who demonstrates his moxie-packed dancing chops with some of Birdie’s fan club “sad girls” who are lamenting the fact that when Birdie returns from the Army, they will be too old for him! Rodriguez’s exceptional dancing skills are showcased in the number “What Did I Ever See in Him?” during which she uses a briefcase to represent Albert, which she hugs, swings around her dextrous frame, and eventually throws off stage in disgust.

Ephraim Sykes and Company in "Honestly Sincere"
"A Lotta Livin to Do"

Both Borle and Rodriguez have stupendous comedic timing. When Borle is vamping on reasons he hasn’t yet married Rodriguez, he states they need to overcome their religious differences. Rodriguez quips back, “Spanish is not a religion.” When Rose argues “Like it or not, you’re an intellectual!” the orchestra members yell “Augghh!”  And how not to love Richard Kind and Jennifer Laura Thompson as Kim’s frazzled parents lamenting “Kids,” their precocious son Randolph (Henry Kirk), Kevin Ligon’s doofus of a mayor, or the teenage twosome’s sweet-scented duo “One Boy”?

Ephraim Sykes and Company

Unlike Grease, this is not nostalgia seen through a contemporary lens: Bye Bye Birdie is of and from its real time, so it’s a bit dated — but that is its appeal. Who can resist corny jokes, incredible music and dancing? It’s old-fashioned fun and antics that shouldn’t be missed.

Ephraim Sykes and Company "A Lotta Livin to Do"

photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Krysta Rodriguez

Bye Bye Birdie
Broadway Center Stage at the Eisenhower Theater
The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW in Washington, DC
ends on June 15, 2024
for tickets, visit Kennedy Center

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