Photo by Amy Pasquantonio
Albert Peterson (Jeremy Benton) and Rose Alvarez (Leah Sessa) share a moment.
By AARON KRAUSE
Witnessing The Wick Theatre & Museum Club’s current winning production of Bye Bye Birdie is the next best thing to traveling back to the 1950s in a time machine.
No doubt, the production, which runs through Dec. 24 in the elegant Boca Raton theater space, is a splashy, fizzy, and fun reminder of a simpler, more innocent time. And who among us in today’s turbulent world could not use a nostalgic respite from headlines that make us want to crawl under the covers and remain there?
From dancing sequences that will remind you of a Gene Kelly-starring song and dance film to bright, colorful costumes and set pieces, the Wick Theatre’s buoyant, roughly 2 hour and 30 minutes Bye Bye Birdie delivers. By the way, those two-and-a-half hours include one intermission.
Members of a huge Wick Theatre cast prove to be triple threats. For them, entertaining seems to come as naturally as breathing. The cast members shine under Norb Joerder’s careful direction, choreographer Cat Pagano’s physical and energetic choreography, and musical director Bobby Peaco’s solid guidance.
While this production does not include a live orchestra, recorded music ably accompanies the performers, whose strong and expressive voices emit pleasant sounds.
True, in today’s divisive climate, when racism and other forms of hate are widespread, at least one of the show’s lines will likely make many uncomfortable. Specifically, recall the moment when talent agent Albert Peterson’s mother, Mae, refers to her son’s Hispanic girlfriend as “Mexicali Rose who came for the fruit-picking season.” Despite the times, the line remains in the Wick’s production. In another mounting of Bye Bye Birdie, producers changed the line to “a floozy who came for a good time.”
Even so, most of what you will experience in the 1958-set Bye Bye Birdie is wholesome. The show, which premiered on Broadway in 1960 in a Tony Award-winning success, led to a London production, several major revivals, a sequel, a 1963 film and a 1995 television production. As you may know, the show’s basis is a real-life incident. In particular, the country drafted music icon Elvis Presley into the Army in 1957.
One of the lead characters is Peterson, a New York talent agent stricken with issues involving his girlfriend, his mother, and his client.
Peterson’s sweetie, Rose, wants to finally marry him after years in a relationship with him. But Albert has been hesitant to tie the knot. And the young man’s mother, Mae, doesn’t approve of Rose. In addition, as though Peterson didn’t already have enough problems, his rock-star client, Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-like performer, has been drafted into the Army. This fact threatens both of their careers.
As part of a publicity stunt, all end up in fictional, tiny Sweet Apple, Ohio. There, Birdie can bestow one last kiss on one of his fans chosen randomly. More specifically, Birdie will kiss the young and adoring Kim MacAfee on the Ed Sullivan Show. As part of the plan, Birdie becomes a guest in the MacAfee home. Comically, the whole plan throws practically the entire town of Sweet Apple into chaos. Predictably, though, all end up living happily ever after.
While we enjoy the 1950’s nostalgia that The Wick’s production serves up, the proceedings never come across as dated or quaint. That’s a credit to a fine cast and director. They nail the show’s tongue-in-cheek humor and gentle satire of the 1950’s, small town America, teenagers, and rock and roll.
It’s all a loving send up filled with warmth, humor, and vibrancy. And while you may want to experience (or re-experience) the show for its light-hearted story, chances are a good number of audience members simply want to experience (or re-experience) Bye Bye Birdie’s vibrant and bright score. From the upbeat and encouraging “Put on a Happy Face” to the sincere and tender “One Boy,” this musical is filled with songs that will stick in your head like glue. Of course, Charles Strouse composed the memorable music, Lee Adams penned the humorous and heartfelt lyrics, and Michael Stewart wrote the comedic libretto.
While Bye Bye Birdie is mostly an escapist show, the piece can leave us thinking a bit. Indeed, its themes include our obsession with celebrity and the gulf separating generations.
During his solo number, “Honestly Sincere,” the titular character sings: “You’ve got to be sincere, honestly sincere, man you’ve got to be sincere!”
In addition to serving as lyrics for that song, the words amount to good advice for performers. Indeed, the truer actors are to their characters, the more we will believe that we are actually witnessing real human beings. Also, in a comedy, the more sincere actors are in their portrayals, the funnier their lines will be. Judging from a recent performance, The Wick Theatre’s cast has followed such advice.
Jeremy Benton most recently wowed Wick Theatre audiences as Billy Crocker in Anything Goes! This time, Benton conveys positivity and charm as Peterson. That is especially true during the song, “Put on a Happy Face.” Benton’s Peterson also manages to be sweet, but not saccharine, in the finale, “Rosie.” During that number, Peterson tenderly sings to his sweetheart. Mostly, Benton imbues Peterson with believable nervousness and annoyance, particularly at Mama Peterson. Also, Benton and his castmates deftly execute physical choreography without missing a beat. They make dancing look easy.
Meanwhile, Leah Sessa, an award-winning actor and no stranger to Wick audiences, is a force of nature as the commanding Rose. At the same time, Sessa always ensures that we like Rose enough to pull for her despite her forceful, confident personality. There isn’t a hint of arrogance in Sessa’s impressive performance.
Other cast standouts include Alexandra Van Hasselt. She brings an air of independence, dreaminess, and confidence to Kim MacAfee. Kim is the teenage resident of Sweet Apple, Ohio randomly chosen to receive “One Last Kiss” from Birdie before he leaves for military service.
Kim is one of several child characters in Bye Bye Birdie. The others include her younger brother, Randolph (a respectful and sincere Noah Weiss), jealous youth Hugo Peabody (an impulsive Cody Knable), awkward teen Harvey Johnson (a nerdy, eager Zachary Kopelman), and vibrant teen Ursula Merkle (an enthused Gianina Mugavero).
The MacAfee parents come to believable life courtesy of Dalia Aleman as a devoted Doris MacAfee and Ben Sandomir as an angry and exasperated Harry MacAfee.
Lourelene Snedeker brings an impressive deadpan delivery to Mrs. Mae Peterson. Snedeker makes her a curmudgeon rather than a truly hateful, insensitive person. Therefore, we tolerate, but don’t condone, some of her comments.
A performer named “Cole” reminds us of Elvis in his portrayal of the titular character. The actor has all the moves and gestures down pat. That might be because Cole has portrayed Elvis. For example, he portrayed “The King” in the Wick’s recent production of Million Dollar Quartet.
A fine supporting cast of performers ably portray their characters. To their credit, they work together seamlessly to bring the director’s vision onstage.
Behind the scenes, several artists contribute to the production’s success. They include Clifford Spulock. His atmospheric lighting design enhances the ambiance of scenes. Wisely, for instance, Spulock illuminates the stage with red lighting during the sultry, passion-filled number “Shriner’s Ballet.” In addition, the lighting is appropriately dim during romantic scenes.
Also backstage, Kacey D. Koploff’s projections at times enhance the action. For instance, we see images of small-town America during scenes set in Sweet Apple. Those who have lived in or visited small towns will likely recognize such images.
Kimberly Wick’s brightly-colored, detailed scenic design reinforces the show’s lighthearted mood. In addition, Isabel Rubio’s costumes are bright, period-specific, and striking. And sound designer Jessee Worley helps to ensure that we can hear and understand the performers.
Joerder’s smart direction includes attention to detail. For instance, Aleman, as Doris, keeps her hands on Randolph’s shoulders during scenes involving the MacAfee family. This helps to portray Doris as a loving and protective mom.
Miami-Dade County has a top-notch producer of musicals in Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre. Meanwhile, Broward County has Slow Burn Theatre Company, while Palm Beach County has The Wick Theatre and Maltz Jupiter Theatre. Kudos to the Wick on yet another strong production of a musical.
It makes sense that The Wick is staging Bye Bye Birdie (a lighthearted show) before its next production. Specifically, the Wick will next mount a production of an emotionally-heavy, at times dark show in Fiddler on the Roof. It will play the Wick from Jan. 11-Feb. 11.
Bye Bye Birdie runs through Dec. 24 at the Wick Theatre. The address is 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton. For tickets, call (561) 995-2333 or visit https://thewick.org.