How do you inject genuine fun, fizz and frenzy into “Bye Bye Birdie,” the musical that arrived on Broadway in 1960, served as an homage to the 1950s, and now, in so many ways, could easily feel as dated as black and white console televisions, land line telephones, pedal pushers, saddle shoes and gas-guzzling cars with giant tailfins?
To begin with, you tap Tammy Mader, the Chicago director who forged her career as a dancer, choreographer (and vintage dresser). Mader understands that locomotion — and the sort of crazily cartoonish energy that suggests the birth of rock and roll and its associated fan club antics — is the key to making this show pop in ways you might never have thought possible. She also knows that if you substitute science project-like electricity and rabid cheerleader zest for any attempt at realism — and you populate the stage with performers who know how just how to inject a sort of Saturday morning cartoon zaniness into things — you can bring back “Bye Bye Birdie,” with its score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and book by Michael Stewart, in a whole new way.
‘BYE BYE BIRDIE’
When: Through March 13
Where: Drury Lane Theater, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
You need only watch Mader’s hilariously brilliant second act “Shriners Ballet” to realize that she is capable of doing what Jerome Robbins did (and there could be no greater compliment), which is to use dance to create an entire scene.
Of course it helps to have a performer like Michelle Aravena (a 2015 Jeff Award winner for her portrayal of Anita in Drury Lane’s “West Side Story”), who here, in the role of Rose Alvarez, a super savvy secretary, can slither over, under and around a banquet table as she drives a meeting of men in fezzes to the brink of distraction.
Matching her step-for-step in the role of Albert Peterson, the nerdy music producer and mama’s boy who has kept her waiting for marriage for far too long, is Matt Crowle, a lithe dynamo who also moves like a dream, whether trying to cheer up a sad young girl with a tap routine, waltz Rose around the stage, or just suggest a nervous breakdown triggered by his monstrous mother (Catherine Smitko is a hoot, spouting Donald Trump-like comments), or by his attempt to stage an elaborate send-off for his biggest client, Conrad Birdie (Jason Michael Evans), an Elvis Presley-like teen idol who has been drafted into the Army.
It is actually Alvarez who comes up with the idea for the big farewell that will be telecast on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” that iconic 1950s variety hour. She wants to stage “One Last Kiss” in Sweet Apple, Ohio, classic small-town America, where Birdie will smooch one of his rabid fans, Kim (the lush-voice Leryn Turlington). But unlike her many goofy friends, Kim is ready to be “a woman,” much to the chagrin of her father (George Andrew Wolff), and boyfriend, Hugo (Ryan Stajmiger). And the town of Sweet Apple is quickly turned upside down by Birdie’s visit.
Christopher Ash’s set and projections (with lighting by Charles Cooper), deftly interweave a metallic mid-century design vibe with 21st century technology, and its many pieces move so cleverly it looks as if Mader choreographed them, too. Sharon Sachs’ snappy costumes are the 1950s on steroids. And Alan Burowiecki’s musical direction (with Ben Johnson doing his usual outstanding work in the orchestra pit), is top-notch.
To be sure, the show is total silliness, but it doesn’t try to be anything more. And I’d go just for the dancing.