On Theater: 'Birdie' soars above second-act woes

Those whose memories stretch back to the teenage female angst of 1957, when Uncle Sam finally caught up to Elvis Presley, will particularly appreciate the revival of the musical "Bye Bye Birdie," now on stage for the second time in recent history at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

"Birdie," in this case, is Conrad Birdie, an Elvis-type singer who's just been drafted and, in a managerial brainstorm, agrees to visit a small town in Ohio and kiss one lucky fan farewell.

Playwright Michael Stewart virtually shot his creative wad in the first act, leaving a bit of a cleanup project in the second — but Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics) rose to the challenge. "Birdie" soars in its initial segment in its Huntington Beach incarnation, thanks to the creative efforts of director Terri Miller Schmidt and an inspired cast.

That first act ends with Birdie's aborted smooch on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and what follows after intermission is mostly anticlimactic as the two principal female characters decide to sow their respective wild oats. Character development, most of it effective, is what keeps the production on an even keel.

Two glorious female voices provide the musical highlights in the Huntington Beach production, as well as the major dramatic power. Sonja Taylor excels as Rosie, the Hispanic girlfriend of Birdie's manager, who warbles with a touch of sarcasm and staves off her guy's overpossessive mother.

The centerpiece of this show, however, is Jena Slipp as Kim, the Sweet Apple sweetie chosen at random to receive Birdie's buss. Slipp displays a magnificent vocal quality matched with delicious comic timing in the evening's standout performance.

Austin James Duffis as Albert, the harried manager, strives to keep his world (and meal ticket) from shattering his dream (of becoming an English teacher) and manages to sustain credibility. He also must deal with the show's monstrous cliche of egregious maternal force — Eloise Coopersmith, given free reign to wreak farcical havoc over her son's life.

As Kim's jealous boyfriend, Drew Dalton Russ is appropriately bland, while Johnnie Gillies as her father swipes his scenes voraciously, grabbing camera time on "The Ed Sullivan Show" with shameless abandon. Tiffany Aptaker and David Anderson are effective as his "normal" wife and son.

Ian James heats up the stage in the title role, triggering mass female fainting spells with his suggestive Elvis-like solo "Honestly Sincere." Elisabeth Mullins has a showy one-shot cameo as a lusty sexpot recruited by Mama in a vain (and somewhat silly) attempt to squelch her son's romance.

Ensemble effort works to a large extent, under the choreographic eye of Shannon Kane, to project the sheer volume of humanity necessary to render such a show effective. Musically, the prime numbers are Slipp's "How Lovely to Be a Woman" and Taylor's semi-sensuous "Spanish Rose."

"Bye Bye Birdie" harkens back to a more uncomplicated time in America's — and musical theater's — history. It's a tuneful, satiric tribute at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Bye Bye Birdie"

Where: Huntington Beach Playhouse, Library Theater, 7171 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 11

Cost: $18 to $20

Information: (714) 375-0696 or http://www.hbplayhouse.com

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