Life in post-war America seems to be one of the most curious periods in recent history. Despite, or more likely because of, the horrors of the previous decade, the 1950’s gives the impression of existing in a snowdome; a quaintly innocent age forever frozen in time protected from the changes to come. Apple pie, mom and pop diners, white-picket fences, the nuclear family; snapshot stereotypes summoned up by small-town conservatives as they hark back to a period they feel we never should have left.
Uncovering the truth behind the myth is one of the joys of Bye Bye Birdie. Performed on Broadway in 1960, this Tony-Award musical is notable for retaining its modernity right into 2015. Spoofing the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley’s draft notice into the army, it explodes ideas that are often casually accepted about the period and raises questions about how rose-tinted are the glasses through which we look to the past.
Sharply written, it captures the casual racism (witness an amazing string of close-to-the-knuckle one-liners spewing forth from Mae Patterson’s Jayne Ashley) and assumed patriarchal control (witness a highly hilarious rant from Harry Hart’s continually undermined Harry Macafaee) of the times. It is a world where girls become women at fifteen and are seen as fair game from predatory rock ‘n roll stars. The town has a bubbling undercurrent of sexual frustration slowly heading towards boiling point before exploding with the arrival of Zac Hamilton’s Conrad Birdie.
That it found an audience in 1960 America is perhaps not surprising, but it is also not so surprising that it has fallen out of fashion in the UK to the extent that it has never had a major UK revival since playing for 269 performances in 1961. It is not really ‘our’ history. We were too busy clearing up bomb damage and inventing skiffle to find time to buy a Buick Convertible and head off to the 5-and-dime for a soda pop.
Which of course makes it perfect material for All Star Productions; home to musical theatre of the most forlorn and forgotten kind. The last show highlighted the merits of this philosophy – Face the Music was a stunning show that blended expert choreography with the thrill of seeing something entirely new on the UK stage by giants of the American musical.
It is always a pleasant surprise to discover a musical contains a song you know inside out, and Bye Bye Birdie can lay claim to Put On A Happy Face (see below for the film version) which will certainly have you humming on the way out the doors. However apart from the notable exception of Kids (subject to a Simpson’s parody) and the rock & roll of Conrad Birdie, Bye Bye Birdie struggles to reach the same heights as Face the Music due to a book that does not have the songs to match up to its stellar script.
There are some excellently choreographed dance numbers, supported by the tight band jammed into the back of the small stage, and Liberty Buckland is given a chance to show some real star quality in Shriner Ballet and Spanish Rose. She is a magnetic presence on stage and her dancing has a languid quality that oozes with an easy grace. It would not be surprising to see Buckland moving into West End roles in the near future.
The rest of the choreography is a little uneven. In the smaller numbers everything moves fluidly but on the larger group numbers, where Face the Music excelled, it comes across as slightly clunky as if there is a lack of confidence of what to do in the very tight space. The commitment to such a large cast should be applauded, but not for the first time I found myself questioning whether the Rose and Crown is the best place for one.
Bye Bye Birdie is an entertaining night out. The script couldn’t survive without the musical numbers providing the necessary variety, and even if some of the songs are a little average it is rarely unenjoyable and clips along at a fair pace. All in all, it is a solid rather than spectacular production.
Put On A Happy Face
This website will never knowingly fail to give you a link to an appropriate Dick Van Dyke video where one is available. And this one is particularly fabulous.
The Telephone Song
Another number from the film – this one provides a sense of the slightly curious air the musical has. What initially seems like a rather annoying straight-laced 1950’s number slowly morphs into something that steadily gets more and more bizarre, and all in glorious technicolour.