Review: ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ at The FrederickTowne Players

The FrederickTowne Players’ latest production of Bye Bye Birdie highlights their forty-seventh season with the always popular story of a rock-and-roll heartthrob, star struck teens, fifties sensibility and the world’s most overbearing helicopter Mom. Bye Bye Birdie has a book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse (Annie).

Cody Gilliam (Conrad Birdie) and the teen ensemble. Photo by Laurie Newton.
Cody Gilliam (Conrad Birdie) and the teen ensemble. Photo by Laurie Newton.

From the opening moments, Director Matt J. Bannister grabs the audience and plants them in the middle of the action onstage. Instead of the traditional stage announcements from a board member of the theater group, a gaggle of screaming teenage girls are ushered into the dark auditorium by a flashlight-wielding adult. They take empty seats in the first row-at the foot of the stage. Their guide walks up on stage and while addressing them about the impending arrival of teen idol Conrad Birdie, she deftly describes the emergency exits and prohibitions on flash photography and video. During her audience talk, the young girls scream in delight at the mere mention of Birdie’s name.

Vanessa Robison (Rosie). Photo by Laurie Newton.
Vanessa Robison (Rosie). Photo by Laurie Newton.

What follows is two solid hours of rollicking fun. The set design, the vision of Cody Gilliam (more on Cody in a bit), offers a large backstage set piece that dominates the stage. A two-tiered platform offers a shimmering variety show-style backdrop and a center stage entrance/exit. Two large curved stairways from the upper right and left join at the bottom, and the best part, an upper platform that holds an onstage orchestra, visible to the audience.

The balance of the set pieces move on and offstage in blackout. Obvious thought went into capturing the spirit of the 1950s, from the colors to the kitsch. One of the most effective scenes is the interior of the MacAfee home. The living room and kitchen set pieces fully occupy the large stage space, and coupled with aforementioned center rear platform stairs, give the real impression of a two-story family home in Sweet Apple, Ohio.

The cast of Bye Bye Birdie bring a youthful enthusiasm to their dancing, singing and interactions. The adult and teen ensembles fill the stage with energy, and the costumes, hair, and makeup truly recreate the visual sense of a 50’s small town.

A few numbers really stand out: “Ed Sullivan,” a loving ode to the legendary variety show host, is as good in this show as it was in the film, with humor and top-notch harmonies. When Birdie/Gilliam belts out “Sincere,” you not only feel the swooning, you see it! There’s a cute little tap dance interlude during “Put on a Happy Face,” and the teen ensemble adds a higher level of energy whenever they take the stage.

Amanda Berry, Steve Cairns, Shelby Gibb, and Emily Cofer. Photo by Laurie Newton.
Amanda Berry, Steve Cairns, Shelby Gibb, and Emily Cofer. Photo by Laurie Newton.

A few of the performances beg recognition, although every performer deserves credit for their contributions. The two young star-crossed lovers – Kim MacAfee (Emily Cofer) and Hugo Peabody (Alex Prete), bring their respective characters to life and endear themselves to the audience with sincerity, humor and youthful energy.

Cody Gilliam is really effective as the sneering, snarling and beer-guzzling Conrad Birdie. If it were just his presence onstage, he’d deserve a lot of credit. As is often the case with community theater, though, Cody designed both the sets and the costumes. His portrayal of Birdie is fun to watch.

Speaking of fun to watch, whenever Nancy Jones takes the stage as Mae Peterson, the overbearing mother of record company agent Albert Peterson (Cam Sammartino), you simply can’t take your eyes off of her. From her fur coat-clad waddle to her New York accent, Ms. Jones is a comedic tour-de-force.

Her primary antagonist in the battle for Albert’s attention is female lead character Rosie Alvarez, played with real sex appeal, style and sass by Vanessa Robison. Rosie’s affection for Albert is obvious, while her disdain for Mae’s controlling personality is palpable and simmering right below the surface.

Nancy Jones & Cam Sammartino. Photo by Laurie Newton.
Nancy Jones & Cam Sammartino. Photo by Laurie Newton.

Cam Sammartino is very good in the lead role as the beleaguered Albert. Mr. Sammartino has a comfortable and natural acting style, and you can certainly feel for him in his predicament.

Steve Cairns grabs the role of Harry MacAfee by the throat and gives the part everything he’s got. His work onstage during the “One Last Kiss” strategically trying to stay within view of the CBS camera crew, had the audience laughing out loud.

Conrad Birdie is in Sweet Apple, Ohio to celebrate his departure for the US Army. Don’t miss this chance to join the young ladies of the Sweet Apple chapter of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club in wishing him well!

Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Bye Bye Birdie plays though July 24, 2016 at The FrederickTowne Players, performing at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theatre at Frederick Community College -7932 Opossumtown Pike, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 315-3855, buy them at the box office beginning one hour prior to the performance, or purchase them online.

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