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As I put pen to paper for this review, I am reminded of that wise old expression: “Better late than never.” As a critic, I have never been fond of reviewing shows on opening nights as I feel it is best to let cast and crew work out the kinks and get their feet on the ground in front of an audience before I enter the picture. Thus, I often attend productions on the second night of performances before preparing my remarks for devoted readers of The People’s Critic. My recent out-of-town travels made that option impossible for the Owen Theatre’s August opening of The Players’ Theatre Company production of a fun-filled, BYE BYE BIRDIE. While Opening Night had not been a possibility for me, I’m very glad the theatre invited me to attend the gala closing night last Saturday.
On entering the attractive lobby, there was an immediate buzz of excitement generated by a long receiving line of handsome and smartly uniformed Aggie cadets from Texas A&M University. They greeted arriving guests with wide smiles while handing out the show programs. (I never mentioned they were shaking hands with this U.T. Longhorn, Class of ’66. Why start trouble?) Before the show began, these eager lads were called to the front to be introduced by Owen president, Mark Wilson, and the show’s talented director, Mary Yost. They explained that this fine contingent is called into service for the closing night of each of the Owen’s productions, serving as volunteers to break down the set when the curtain falls. Gig’em Boys!
With its book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, the 1961 Tony Award-winning original Broadway production of BYE BYE BIRDIE would spawn countless revivals, tours, and of course, the ever-popular 1963 film version. Most recently I had the opportunity to see the 2009 Broadway revival in New York. With its enormous and energetic cast of 44 local thespians, this current Conroe edition at the Owen was smoothly directed by Ms. Yost. Dave Englert beautifully conducted the terrific 17-piece Virtuous Pit Band from its unusual location to the rear of the audience. Credit the fine cast singing to Vocal Director, Joshua Yost, and the bright costumes to designer, Marieda Kilgore. The cheerful plot is set in the Presley rock-n-roll era of the 1950’s and gently spoofs the fan pandemonium that ensued when Presley was drafted into the army. In this story we have vocally talented Jared Barnes portraying about-to-be-drafted rock star, Conrad Birdie.
Conrad’s agent, songwriter Albert Peterson (Ben Miller), is panicking at the thought of losing his prime client, but Albert’s secretary and amorous girlfriend, Rosie (dance sensation, Amy Barnes) suggests a publicity stunt send-off for Conrad featuring a new song by Albert titled “One Last Kiss.” The plan is to have Birdie sing the song on the Ed Sullivan show before planting a kiss on one randomly chosen Birdie Fan Club member.
Pretty Sachi Tanaka plays the lucky teenaged winner, Kim MacAfee, a teen who lives in Sweet Apple, Ohio. Kim is on the mature side of adolescence as Miss Tanaka sweetly sings the coming of age song, “How Lovely to be a Woman.” Kim’s parents, Doris and Harry (amusingly played here by Julia Reece and Michael Hayes) have initial misgivings about their daughter being involved in this Conrad Birdie campaign, but they change their tune when confronted with the possible celebrity of the family appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show along with Kim’s little brother, Randolph (Hayden Olds), to sing the hilariously reverent, “Hymn For a Sunday Evening.” Doris and Harry bring more fun to Act II when they sing the comical, “Kids,” reflecting on all the problems parents have in dealing with teens. Mr. Hayes gives us a Harry that is deliciously droll.
Adding to the comedy is the character of Albert’s possessive and overbearing mother, Mae (Martha Davis), who specializes in insulting Rosie in hopes of frustrating her romantic intentions with Albert. Miss Davis gives us a Mae who is a real drama queen and wants her son all to herself. Rosie just wants to settle down with Albert and sings longingly of his becoming “An English Teacher.”
Utilizing the fine set design of Roger Ormiston, the lively and colorful cubicle staging of the Telephone Hour song has the town’s teens gossiping on the phone about the exciting news that Kim is going steady with young Hugo Peabody (Eric Phillips). The complicated number, full of challenging counterpoints, was beautifully executed by this large cast of talented young performers. I wish I could name them all. Lovely songs seem to follow one after the other. With his powerful voice and hip-swiveling gyrations, Mr. Barnes gives us fun-filled and over-the-top performances of “Honestly Sincerely,” and “One Last Kiss,” while his teen admirers squeal with delight. One of the finest voices in this cast is Mr. Miller as Albert. Performing tunes such as, “Put on a Happy Face,” and “Rosie,” his smooth, mellow vocals might call to mind the Hollywood likes of crooner, Dick Haymes.
And speaking of Rosie, Miss Barnes stands out in this cast for her exciting and seductive delivery of the athletic and acrobatic choreography of designer, Melody Johnson, during the dazzling and uproarious, “Shriner’s Ballet.” Like the show itself, it was great fun!
Up next at the Owen Theatre will be Ken Ludwig’s comedy, MOON OVER BUFFALO, playing from October 16th through November 1st. For tickets, show dates and information call 936-539-4090 or visit the website at www.owentheatre.com.