The era depicted in Bye Bye Birdie must seem like ancient history to the kids in the cast of the production at the Palm Canyon Theatre. But for those of us who do remember those days, the show ironically recalls—and satirizes—that amazing time.
Thanks to J.W. Layne’s versatile set, the décor hurls us back in time to the iconic designs of 1958. Throughout this musical—which hit Broadway in 1960, followed by the big screen in 1963—we are treated to the outrageous colors, fashions and dance styles of the time. A big salute to Se Layne Tethal and her crew for the costumes, Mado Nunez for the hairstyles and wigs, Nick Edwards for props, Anthony Nannini for his choreography, Layne Tethal for the lighting, David McLaughlin for his musical direction, and all the crew members who pitched in. Of course, big kudos go to director Matthew Gose, who beautifully brought it all together. Whew!
Then there’s the cast: The actors range in age from single digits to seniors. The story is about an Elvis-like Conrad Birdie (apparently derived from singer Conway Twitty’s name) getting his draft notice from the Army (which, of course, actually happened to Elvis, no doubt throwing his management into fits at the idea that he might be forgotten by teenagers, notorious for short attention spans). So his agent comes up with the idea of memorializing Conrad’s last kiss, of a small town girl, who will obviously never forget him—hopefully leading the way for his other followers.
Everything spreads out from that. We meet Birdie’s agent, Albert Peterson, played magnificently by Dane Whitlock, and his annoyed secretary, Rosie Alvarez, played by the fabulous Layne Tethal. Peterson’s mother, Mae Peterson, is played for laughs by a scary Amanda Burr.
We meet the girl who is selected to be the recipient of Conrad’s last kiss, Kim MacAfee, solidly played by young Sasha Chasen. Her family: the nervous mother played by Colleen Walker, and the chauvinistic blustering father, played by Tom Warrick.
And her friends! Brace yourself: The screaming kids open the show, pounding down the stairs right through the audience. The tireless teens sing and dance and emote throughout, just like teenagers did then, and do today. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, is moodily played by Max Mule. The town’s mayor, with Charles Gaines in the role, and Shirley LeMaster as his wife, lead the ensemble.
Of course, there’s Conrad Birdie himself. It would be interesting to know how Nicholas Sloan learned the moves of Elvis. He’s impossibly slim, with a pouty arrogance so like that of The King when he started out; Sloan catches all of the qualities that made kids go wild with excitement—and parents wild with horror—when Elvis burst onto the scene (and changed the music business overnight). Dressed in boots and over-the-top costumes, he’s perfectly cast.
The show, of course, is filled with ebullient song-and-dance numbers. From the wild writhing of the teenagers, to the breath-taking grace of Layne Tethal and Whitlock, the variety is delightful. This show gave us some unforgettable songs: “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “Put on a Happy Face” were recorded by nearly everybody in the business, and have become classics. “Kids,” performed here by Walker and Warrick, enchanted everyone. “A Mother Doesn’t Matter,” done by the martyred harridan Mae, played by Burr, elicited appreciative laughs from the men as well as the ladies in the audience.
The sound, despite a couple of tiny glitches—the cast has to be careful with hugs while wearing face and Lavalier microphones—was as good as we’ve heard at the Palm Canyon Theatre. That said, there’s a lot of screeching that, amplified, made some heads ring. Basically, everyone yells. The singers are pitched at the top of their range, a technique used to create excitement, but that doesn’t always work with every voice; even sopranos have their limits. The hard-edged sound so often required in musical comedy can sometimes wear on listeners.
Not surprisingly, the show is dominated by the old pros, who display lovely energy and secure stage presences when compared to the frenetic youth. The writing throughout is bright, and the conflicts move along rapidly. A special “Ole!” to Se Layne Tethal for her “Spanish Rose” number, which managed to be sexy and clever at the same time.
Bye Bye Birdie’s short two-week run concludes this coming weekend. Of course, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the film version—as if you needed a reason to see it.
Bye Bye Birdie is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 23; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, May 24 and 25; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 26, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, and the show runs about two hours with one intermission. For tickets or more info, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org. Also: The theater is offering a Summer Kids Camp from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, from June 17 through July 27 ($125 per week); visit the site for more details.