REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
If Cabrillo Music Theatre’s current production of Bye, Bye Birdie proves to mean “Bye, Bye Cabrillo,” at least it assures that the venerable theater company will go out on a high note. Cabrillo is currently in danger of shutting its doors for good if it doesn’t reach 80% of its target goal of raising $250,000 by August 1. Although they still have a ways to go before reaching that amount (artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld told the opening night audience on Friday that they were at the 53% level), spirits were high when the curtain rose and there was an atmosphere of hope and optimism that Cabrillo will survive for another season.
In the meanwhile, Wilkenfeld, who serves as the show’s director, and a cast of sixty, pulled out all the stops on a slam bang production of Birdie, the classic 1960 musical that launched the career of Dick Van Dyke. The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
The story is well known; a broad satire of the upheaval felt throughout America when rock ‘n’ roll idol Elvis Presley was drafted in 1958 and left the entertainment world to serve in Germany in the U.S. Army. In Birdie, the Elvis doppleganger was named Conrad Birdie, a hip-twisting, egocentric boor who calls girls “chicks,” swills beer, and enjoys making overwrought teenaged girls faint in his presence. (Originally, the character was supposed to be called Conway Twitty, but the real Twitty threatened a lawsuit, so the producers came up with a similar name.)
Small-time songwriter Albert Peterson, who runs Birdie’s publishing company, realizes that when Birdie goes off to the Army, his publishing income will dry up, so he and his secretary Rose concoct a gimmick whereby Birdie will plant a kiss on a teenage girl, whose name was selected from the files of the Birdie fan club, and then perform Albert’s new composition, “One Last Kiss,” on CBS’s vaunted Ed Sullivan Show.
Wilkenfeld populated Cabrillo’s production with a bevy of local talent, many of whom have starred in their own shows throughout the county. All were eager to participate in Birdie, even those who received smaller ensemble parts; thus is the affection felt by VC performers for Cabrillo, the county’s main nurturing ground for Broadway-bound talent.
Heading the cast were Actors Equity members Zachary Ford (Albert), Michelle Marmolejo (Rose), and Jim J. Bullock (Harry McAfee). Albert Peterson is the one character who seems to have the most latitude for actors; Dick Van Dyke played him as Dick Van Dyke, but every subsequent actor does it differently. Ford chose a more mousy approach, starting out like Gene Wilder and then, after growing a backbone, finishing like Matthew Broderick. He sings well on Albert’s signature number, the classic “Put on a Happy Face,” charmingly delivered with the help of two terrific young dancers, Amanda Carr and Megan Stonger.
As Rose Alvarez, the secretary trying to land Albert and liberate him from his overbearing mother (Celeste Russi), Marmolejo is vivacious, and, at times, electrifying, especially in her leggy dance work on “One Boy,” “Spanish Rose,” and the “Shriner’s Ballet.” Dance numbers rarely get ovations during a song, but when a spreadeagled Marmolejo was transferred, while remaining in split formation, by the Shriners, hand by hand, across a banquet table, the audience erupted with loud cheering. For anyone comparing Rose to that of Anita in West Side Story (both roles created by Chita Rivera), Marmolejo included a great musical reference to Anita’s solo, “A Boy Like That” during the “Spanish Rose” number.
Speaking of Celeste Russi, is there anything this woman cannot do? In just her second stage appearance since coming out of a long-standing acting hiatus, Russi was uproarious as Mae Peterson, the mink-coated “mother from hell,” who would just as soon stick her head in an oven than see her Albert favor another woman. Celeste got to sing “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which was added to the show for the 1995 television version.
At the opening night after-show party, Jim J. Bullock admitted to having idolized Paul Lynde, and after initially declaring that he would not try to do an imitation of Lynde, gave up, admitting to himself that Lynde not only created the role of prissy Harry McAfee, but set it in cement. As a result, Bullock puts on a performance that not only does justice to Lynde, but adds some touches of his own, like inventing a walk for Harry that looks like he is wearing shorts that are two sizes too small. Harry just wants to retain his peaceful, man-of-the-house stature, but works himself into a boiling, jowl-shaking rage when his home and life are invaded by Albert, Birdie, and their entourage. Bullock easily handles Harry’s transformation from the prototypically repressed fifties father to a media-smitten prima donna who will step in front of anybody to be seen on TV. He is simply a joy to watch.
Farley Cadena, who is normally cast in over-the-top, anything goes character parts, is superb in a more conventional role as Harry’s long-suffering wife Doris. She matches him, step for step, ad-lib for ad-lib, in their comic showpiece duet, “Kids.”
Twenty-six-year-old Noelle Marion has no trouble playing sixteen-year-old Kim McAfee, or any other character she chooses to play. Her acting and singing appear effortless, which indicates the amount of work she puts into her craft. She has a glorious singing voice; powerful yet melodic, with her best moments coming at the beginning of the show in the number “How Lovely to Be a Woman.”
Austin MacPhee plays Conrad Birdie against type; instead of a dark-headed Elvis clone, the fair haired MacPhee softens the character somewhat to make him appear more mortal, which makes the teenagers’ apoplectic reactions to his every move even more funny, especially on his “I Am” number, “Honestly Sincere.”
The secondary characters were no less superlative, and in many cases, matched the stars in ability and poise. The versatile Francesca Barletta is another one of those young character actors who is destined for stardom some day. Playing the excitable Ursula Merkle, spokeswoman for the Conrad Birdie Fan Club, Barletta’s facial expressions and body language are pricelessly funny, especially a fainting pratfall that she executes by literally falling forward on her face on the hard stage floor. It was so realistic that gasps could be heard from the audience, especially when she didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity.
Harrison Meloeny, one of Ventura County’s most adept physical comics, plays Kim’s boyfriend Hugo. Intent on getting drunk in a fit of jealousy over Birdie’s attention to Kim, Hugo gorges on milk and slam dunks himself, backwards, into a metal trash can. Anne Montavon provides laughs in her limited role as curvy blonde Gloria Rasputin. It was also nice to see Ray Mastrovito, the former president of Cabrillo, who was responsible for bringing the company to Thousand Oaks in 1994, playing the role of Maud the bartender in Act II, his first time performing on the Civic Arts Plaza stage in ten years.
The cast was peppered with other gifted youngsters, including an outstanding teen ensemble, who were put through the wringer on the various energetic dance numbers, and a precociously talented children’s ensemble.
The large orchestra performed under the capable leadership of Lloyd Cooper, except when Barletta, as the shrieking Ursula, wrestled away his baton during the overture and conducted the rest of the piece herself. Rand Ryan’s lighting design was excellent, but notably on “Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” when the religious-like devotion to Ed Sullivan (and you had to have grown up during those years to understand this) was accentuated by a monk-like, black-hooded choir with faces illuminated by handheld flashlights. Credit Wilkenfeld for managing to come up with the specially recorded introduction of Conrad Birdie by the real Ed Sullivan that was used in the original 1960 production. The wonderful choreography was painstakingly directed by John Charron.
There were a few opening night mishaps, such as set flats that refused to move, phones that wouldn’t stop ringing, microphones that fed back, and misplaced train whistles, but this is all expected in live theater and the cast handled it all without skipping a beat or dropping a line.
Bye, Bye Birdie is a family-friendly, effervescent delight from start to finish. It continues through July 27 at the Fred Kavli Theatre. See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and show times.