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Incline’s “Bye Bye Birdie” Brings Happy Faces All Around

Review by Doug Iden of Bye Bye Birdie: Incline Theatre

Elvis is in the building – sort of.  The 1960’s spoof on Elvis Presley’s military service, Bye, Bye Birdie, opened at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater amid energetic music and gyrating bodies, straight out of that era.

When the play was originally shown, the producers did not expect a long shelf life but, here we are, almost 70 years later, and the effervescence of the musical continues.  The show is pure fun, pure entertainment while poking a few satirical jabs at the cult of celebrity.  The show has become a bit of a cult classic but, in my judgement, it’s the exuberant dancing, uplifting songs and over-the-top enthusiasm of the cast that carries the performance.  That’s why we still watch it today.

The story line is pretty simple.  Conrad Birdie, a parody of an out-of-control rock and roll phenom, has been drafted, much to the consternation of this manager, Albert Peterson (played enthusiastically and somewhat naively by Jeremiah Plessinger who is becoming a Covedale/Include regular.  Peterson’s agency is having financial difficulties and the impending loss of his star could be catastrophic.  However, his long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Rose Alverez, portrayed by Renee Stoltzfus, wants Albert to quit the agency, marry her and become “An English Teacher” which she intones in a wistful but frustrated tone.

To accomplish her goal and guarantee financial stability, Rose conjures up the scheme to have a televised special with Birdie and a devoted teenage girl singing a new song written by Albert called “One Last Love”.  She arbitrarily picks a name from the Conrad Birdie fan club file, Kim MacAfee (Mikayla Renfrow) from rural Ohio.  The plan is for Birdie to visit Sweet Apple, stay with Kim’s family and then appear remotely on the Ed Sullivan Show singing the new song.  Kim is momentarily mesmerized by Birdie, much to the chagrin of her recently pinned steady Hugo Peabody (Joel Parece).

Another interesting side story is the constant guilt trip foisted on Albert by his mother, Mae (Angela Alexander Nalley).  Mae’s scathing wit (in a politically incorrect manner) is aimed at Rose as Albert’s mother tries to sabotage the relationship with her son. Never fear – it all works out in the end.

Birdie is definitely a throwback to old fashioned musicals with a lot (did I say a lot) of music and dancing.  There is a dance routine in virtually every scene, choreographed by Jeni Bayer Schwiers from solo performances to stage-filling numbers.  Increasingly, Incline is casting college students and alumni which enables young dancers to show off their talents in big production numbers such as “Honestly Sincere” and “A Lot of Living to Do”.  Renee Stoltzfus as Rose excels in several dance numbers including “An English Teacher”, “What Did I Ever See in Him” and the hilarious “Spanish Rose” when she tries to seduce some Shriners while cavorting under a table.

Another highlight is Dylan McGill as Kim’s father Harry MacAfee.  McGill mirrors, and at times seems to mimic, Paul Lynde who originated the role on Broadway and reprised the character in the movie.  He is normally angry and frustrated when he sings the ironic song “Kids” with his family but then assumes an angelic pose as the family sings “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” about the Ed Sullivan show.  Plessinger portrays a pleasant but often befuddled and overwhelmed Albert but delivers some good songs including “Baby, Talk to Me”, “Rosie” (a duet with Rose) and the classic “Put on a Happy Face”.  I was most impressed, however, with Mikayla Renfrow (a sophomore to be at CCM) who has an engaging personality and an excellent voice.  She has a real future in musical theater.  David Emery was appropriately arrogant and disdainful as Birdie.

Brett Bowling’s sets add significantly to the show with very brightly colored boxes which serve as the interior of the MacAfee house, the stairs of the town hall and other locations.  Caren Brady’s costumes blend with Bowling’s sets with very bright colors for most of the cast but contrasts with Alberts somewhat drab hues.  Director Tim Perrino keeps the show moving briskly and Steve Goers directs the band.

The show is unapologetically escapist theater but, if that’s what you like, Birdie delivers.  This was the first rock and roll Broadway show with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams but Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis don’t need to worry about the competition.

So, don’t say Bye Bye, say Hello Hello to this delightful show running at the Incline theater through May 27.  Their next production is Once On This Island opening June 6.