Review: 'Bye Bye Birdie' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic

East Haddam, CT - ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ has been around a long time. Joshua S. Ritter, Education Manager and Library Director at Goodspeed Musicals writes in his program notes that the musical opened on Broadway on April 14, 1960 with Chita Rivera in her first leading role, Dick Van Dyke in his musical comedy debut and Dick Gautier in his Broadway debut as Conrad Birdie. Many consider the show, which was originally titled ‘Let’s Go Steady,’ to be the first rock ‘n’ roll musical. This fact made raising funds to produce the musical difficult, but once it opened, ‘Bye Bye Birdie’s’ fresh and satirical portrayal of youth culture won over the critics and helped paved the way for other rock-based classic like my favorites ‘Tommy,’ ‘Godspell’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ 

Goodspeed’s production opened on Wednesday evening to a packed house, with many members of the press in the audience. I also spotted the fabulous Klea Blackhurst sitting in front of me for this official opening night. I thoroughly enjoyed this actress’ portrayal of Dolly Levi on the Goodspeed stage, as well as her take on Ursula in ‘The Little Mermaid’ at Sharon Playhouse. 

Tristan Buettel, Rhett Guter and the cast of Goodspeed's Bye Bye Birdie. (c)Diane Sobolewski

Tristan Buettel, Rhett Guter and the cast of Goodspeed's Bye Bye Birdie. (c)Diane Sobolewski

During intermission and following the performance, it seemed that the word on everyone’s lips was “fun.” The hardworking cast threw themselves into the antics of the Elvis-inspired Conrad Birdie’s visit to Sweet Apple Ohio for “One Last Kiss” to be bestowed on superfan Kim MacAfee. The choices made by director Jenn Thompson, in her Goodspeed debut, were smart ones and included some fun (there’s that word again) hijinks by the ensemble members in the short aisles of the opera house. The projection videos during the overture and entr-acte brought the audience back to a simpler time via black and white and eventually color images, eliciting nods of remembrance from those of us as old as the show (like me.) The wedding photos that appeared could easily have been taken at my parents’ 1950’s nuptials.  Kudos to projection designer Daniel Brodie on a job done with a keen eye. 

“The Telephone Hour” wasn’t done in the typical boxes but was nonetheless memorable; the chaos in the television studio for “One Last Kiss” was done well despite the confines of the tiny stage. 

Tristen Buettel played Kim with a bounce in her step and just a hint of the lovely Ann-Margaret. A rising senior at Syracuse University, the twenty-something played fifteen as well as she could. Janet Dacal, who impressively played both Carla and Nina Rosario in ‘In the Heights’ on Broadway, was strong in the role of Rosie, both singing and dancing very well. 

Donna English returned to Goodspeed to play Kim’s mother and Warren Kelley, who spent 19 summers in Ivorytown CT, was a riot as her father. Dorcas Leung made her Goodspeed debut in the featured role of Kim’s buddy Ursula. 

The part of Albert Peterson benefits from an actor with an easy charm and George Merrick had that. Mr. Merrick recently starred with Marlo Thomas in the Off-Broadway play ‘Clever Little Lies;’ other Broadway credits include ‘Honeymoon in Vegas,’ ‘South Pacific,’ and ‘High Fidelity.’ Alex Walton made his Goodspeed debut as Hugo; he notes in his bio that his dad got his Equity card working at the theatre 33 years ago. 

The Sweet Apple mayor was played by Paul Aguirre (‘Guys and Dolls’) and young Ben Stone-Zelman, who I remembered from ‘A Wonderful Life’ at Goodspeed,  ‘A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas’ at Hartford Stage, and two Landmark Community Theatre productions, was very good in the role of Kim’s brother Randolph. Tyler Manemeit understudies the role. The ensemble included Emily Applebaun (Nancy,) Hannah Bradley (Margie,) Lauren Fijol (Gloria,) Kristen Hoagland (Helen,) Brittany Nicholas (Alice,) and Marci Reid (Edna.) The guys in the ensemble, most of whom danced well enough to be in ‘West Side Story,’ included Jeremiah Ginn, Michael James (Roger,) Logan Scott Mitchell (Karl,) Eddie Olmo II (Freddie,) Jake Swain (Harvey,) and Branch Woodman (Maude.) 

In the iconic role of Mae Peterson, Albert’s overbearing mother, was Kristine Zbornik. In her ever-present fur coat and rain cap, the actress brought the role to a new level that the audience clearly enjoyed. Her comic timing was impeccable and her delivery earned her many laughs. Parenthetically, my all-time favorite appearance of this Equity actress was when she came to Newtown CT to play Cruella De Vil in the 1214 Foundations NewArts’ production of ‘101 Dalmatians.’ As I wrote in my review of the show, “I could see how much she enjoyed working with her 100 young co stars and they no doubt adored her. 

House announcements were done in the style of Ed Sullivan. The inspired choreography of Patricia Wilcox with dance arrangements by David Krane made the production numbers come alive. “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” was especially exciting. Michael O’Flaherty served as music director and Tobin Ost designed the unique set. The costumes designed by David Toser were up to the usual Goodspeed standards and the wigs and hair designed by Mark Adam Rampmeyer only made them better. 

This production of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ struck me as a kind of fifties teen movie version of the musical and it worked for me. The show has been extended by popular demand, with six performances added in early September.