WALTHAM — The Reagle Music Theatre takes the gem that is the Charles Strouse musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” polishes it, and sets it becomingly in a vibrant production that rocks and rolls like there’s no yesterday, today, or tomorrow (the day so beloved of another little Strouse show called “Annie,” now at the North Shore Music Theatre).
The issues of adolescence, romance, and parent-child relationships don’t change; they just get tweaked by technology and trends. That much is clear from “Bye Bye Birdie,” which debuted on Broadway in 1960 with lyrics by Lee Adams, a book by Michael Stewart, and a cast that included Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke, and Paul Lynde. Its bundle of Tony Awards included best musical.
The show introduces us to the folks of Sweet Apple, Ohio, where Presley-esque heartthrob Conrad Birdie plans to smooch local teen Kim MacAfee on “The Ed Sullivan Show” before he goes into the Army.
BYE BYE BIRDIE
As it begins, in the office of Almaelou Music, the assertive, determined, and frustrated Rose Alvarez (Carman Napier) has had it with Albert Peterson (Jacob Sherburne), her dorky, mother-fearing, jelly-spined boss and boyfriend. In one of Rose’s several suitcase-packing scenes, she comes up with the idea for Albert to write a song for Birdie, “One Last Kiss,” which will make him rich so he can leave the business, become an English teacher, and marry her. Napier owns every one of Rose’s songs, and Sherburne shows off his physical-comedy skills while she sings “An English Teacher.”
Gillian Gordon, as Kim, seamlessly navigates between the poles of teenage life: comfort in being a kid and the desire to be a sophisticated adult. Gordon’s acting and singing are among the strongest in the cast, and she holds her own with Rose in “What Did I Ever See in Him?” The show soars as well with Anita Gillette as Mae Peterson, Albert’s guilt-inducing, all-suffering, controlling mother, who has some of the best lines in the show. When Albert eventually stiffens his spine and tells her to go home, Gillette is razor-sharp: “Wrap me in a flag and dump me in the river on Mother’s Day.”
Playing Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, Matt Phillipps enters wearing lime green pants and steals every scene as a hypochondriacal nerd with a quivering voice (evoking Michael J. Pollard, who played the part in the original Broadway production).
The teen ensemble razzle-dazzles throughout the show, especially in “Honestly Sincere” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” while the costumes (by Gregg Barnes and Goodspeed Musicals) are fabulous and colorful: Think ribbon candy.
The Act 2 “Shriner’s Ballet,” with Rose and the adult male ensemble, is a smoldering number that shows off Napier’s dancing and the guys’ agility. It could be a bit shorter, but it always sizzles.
We wish sizzle described Ryan Overberg’s Conrad Birdie, a character who should smolder, ooze, swagger, and justify the screeches and fainting from the girls and women of Sweet Apple. And we wish we saw something lovable (or even cuddly) about Sherburne’s Albert to justify Rose’s determination to marry him.
Rose’s “Spanish Rose” is terrific, but the stereotypical lyrics in this number and in Mae’s dialogue about the Spanish culture are uncomfortable to hear. With that exception, “Bye Bye Birdie” stands the test of time, and this production puts on a very happy face.