Bye Bye Birdie: Put on a Happy Face
Updated: Mar 13
By: Drew Huddleston
As the QVHS auditorium began to fill last Friday, melodious 50s music drifted through the air, transporting entering audience members back to the time of the show. By the time the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, I couldn’t help but feel as though the experience had already begun. Even with the musical touch, it was nothing compared to the electrically energized production of Bye Bye Birdie.
The story, loosely inspired by Elvis Presley’s draft notice to the U.S army in 1957, follows Albert Peterson (played by senior Joseph Stater), a young New York music producer who dreams of becoming an English teacher and living a life of domestic bliss with his secretary, Rose Alverez (junior Mary Savocchia). Savocchia, who’s focus lies primarily in dance, immediately establishes herself as one of the cast’s many triple threats; her acting and singing seem effortless. Her dancing abilities, which are featured later in the show’s second act, are hypnotic, and virtually indescribable. Stater, who plays opposite Savocchia, brings his signature pomp and circumstance to the role.
Despite his dreams, Albert fears that his overbearing mother, Mae, (senior Jillian Umstead) will resent his actions. Additionally, he owes a number of debts which he is unable to pay off. His opportunity to escape the icy grip of debt and his mother when one of his clients, pop-icon Conrad Birdie (junior Jordan Coury), is drafted in the United States Army. Albert and Rose devise a plan to have Conrad perform a song and bestow a farewell kiss to one of his thousands of teenaged fans on the Ed Sullivan Show, making enough money for Albert to pay off his debts and go back to college to study English. The randomly selected girl is Kim Macafee (sophomore Victoria Meditech), and high-schooler living in Sweet Apple Ohio. So Albert, Rose, and Conrad set off to Ohio.
In Ohio, we see the teens of Sweet Apple conversing over the phone about Kim being pinned by Hugo Peabody (senior Haven Joseph-Lyon), in the eye-popping, head-bobbing telephone line number. The number is just one of many scenes that feature the trademark dancing of choreographer Mike Greer. The complex steps, twists, taps, and spins not only burst with energy but emulate the style of the time period. It’s also in this number that the costume design of sophomore Stella Christensen is featured. The costumes are vibrant and tailor-made to reflect the personality of the characters, whether for the leads or the ensemble.
After the explosive number, we meet Kim MacAfee, who’s girlish enthusiasm is vivaciously realized by Meditech. However, Meditech expands far outside the limitations of her character with her seemingly innate dancing abilities that are impossible to overlook whenever she’s onstage. Kim, lovestruck by her new boyfriend, sings of how she has become a woman, only to come careening back to the shrieking of a wonderstruck fangirl upon hearing the news that she will get to kiss Conrad Birdie. The set design, featuring an elaborate house for the MacAfees, is especially impressive throughout the show’s duration.
As the town prepares for Birdie’s arrival, we return to New York as Albert, Rose, and Conrad prepare to board a train for Sweet Apple. Albert sings to a sad little girl: one of the show’s stand-out numbers, which features the show’s dance captain, senior Maddie Volchko, who taps alongside Stater. The melody is joyous, the dancing mesmerizing, and two actors can’t help but look like they’re having a blast, making for an all-around slam-dunk of a number.
Following the number, Albert tells Rose that he wrote a letter to his mother informing her that he would be leaving the business. Not five seconds after Rose expresses her pride in Albert, do we hear the shrill cry of an elderly woman from offstage. Out waddles Jillian Umstead as Albert’s mother, Mae. Umstead delivers one of the musicals two show-stealing performances. Her stage-presence is incredibly powerful, dominating any scene she inhabits. She plays the guilt-tripping mother with such gusto that you won’t be able to peel your eyes off her. That gusto, mixed with a dash of sass, makes for some of the show’s funniest moments. There’s no denying that Umstead is an absolute stand-out.
Sweet Apple greets Conrad Birdie with excitement, especially the town’s Conrad Birdie Fan Club, led by Kim’s best friend Ursala (played by freshman Miralhi Taylor-Martin) who is one of the hidden-gem performances of the show. The two can’t help but melt in the presence of Birdie, whose golden jumpsuit, swooshed hair, and cool grin make him a chick magnet. Coury is perfectly cast for the role, capturing the cool Elvis vibe flawlessly. Following another vigorous number, we learn that not everyone in Sweet Apple is particularly pleased with his presence. Hugo Peabody, Kim’s new boyfriend, fears that Kim’s kiss will send her head-over-heels for Conrad, leaving Hugo in the dust. In my experiences, Hugo Peabody has always been a relatively forgettable character. However, Haven Joseph-Lyon brings a certain insecure energy to the character that makes him far from forgettable.
More disapproving of Conrad, however, is Kim’s father Harry MacAfee, played by senior Will Torrance. Despite the rest of the family (sophomores Nicole Shaheen and Hadley Boyle) not seeming to mind the star’s presence in the home, Harry’s loss of comfort and pleasure sends him boiling over the edge. This leads to the second show-stealing performance of Bye Bye Birdie. Torrance managed to steal every scene he was on stage, with a boisterous, rage-fueled portrayal that seemed inspired by an expressive Jim Carrey-like performance. Despite the short temperament of character often leading to a thundering volume, Torrance was still articulate, never muddling the perfectly timed and delivered jokes. It was nothing short of a riot that the sold-out show couldn’t help but gobble up.
The controversy of Conrad’s presence in Sweet Apple, as well as simmering tension between Rose and Albert, lead to another home run musical. Marking the second musical Mr. Austin Wolford would sit in the director’s seat, it seemed virtually impossible that he would be able to top last year’s smash hit, Shrek. Yet, against all odds, he’s managed to do it. The show’s biggest issue is that its pacing is often halted by redundancy and arbitrary conflict. However, this is an issue I hold to the script, not the production. Bye Bye Birdie features a myriad of talents, giving them each a place to shine. The singing and dancing explode with energy and effort from the cast and crew. Every second radiates with charm, humor, and pure entertainment. It’s sure to make you put on a happy face.