Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

It’s a measure of the respect Squabbalogic now commands that it can sell out two performances at the Reginald Theatre without audiences having a clue what it is they are going to see.

Tickets to Squabbalogic’s first Mystery Musical were snapped up fast, raising $10,000 for the company, as the company’s artistic director Jay James-Moody told us in his welcome speech before the start of the show. He also revealed that the independent company has applied for funding for the first time.

Anyway, everyone was clearly delighted to be contributing to the cause and was fascinated to see what musical the Squabb team had chosen for the company’s first blind-date show.

With the promised theatre program not being handed out until interval, it wasn’t until the first chords sounded and the cast burst into song that we discovered it was…..(drum roll) Bye Bye Birdie. It was a surprise choice in some ways, as Squabbalogic tends to produce recent musicals we would otherwise be unlikely to see. (Though in another unusual move they are producing Man of La Mancha next month).

The 1960 show with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams is pure musical comedy. I have never seen it on stage. In fact, I didn’t really know the show beyond some of the more famous songs like Put On a Happy Face and A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. So the chance to see it at all was great, and then to see it done so well – with just three days rehearsal – was the cream on the cake. I have to say it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon and everyone in the audience seemed to leave with a big smile on their face.

James-Moody starred, directed and “sort of choreographed” as he put it in the program – though in his welcoming remarks he did acknowledge the help of the cast and Nancye Hayes with the choreography.

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

He had assembled a terrific group of performers – Johanna Allen, Blake Erickson, Mikey Hart, Nancye Hayes, Jessica James-Moody, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Michele Lansdown, Adele Parkinson, Garry Scale and Rowan Witt – and cast the show exceptionally well.

Their ranks were bolstered by an ensemble of 15 enthusiastic, talented graduates and students from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) as the show’s teenagers.

Bye Bye Birdie is an affectionate satire, inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1957. It has plenty of catchy songs, a strong book full of big laughs (which plugs into the growing generation gap between teenagers and their parents), and an old-fashioned, feel-good exuberance about it.

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

Adele Parkinson as Kim with Jessica James-Moody and Romy Watson. Photo: Amelia Burns

In a nutshell, the show is set in 1958. Agent/songwriter Albert Peterson, who is already in debt, hears that rock and roll star Conrad Birdie has been drafted.

Albert’s secretary and long-suffering sweetheart Rose Alvarez, comes up with a publicity stunt to bring in some bucks. Albert will write a new song called “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it and kiss one of his thousands of fans (picked at random) as he departs. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Then, says Rosie, Albert will be able to wind up his business, marry her and become an English teacher (as he has been promising for yonks).

Throw in Albert’s domineering, interfering mother, who does all she can to prevent him marrying Rosie, Kim’s disapproving family and jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, along with hordes of screaming, swooning fans, and things naturally go pear-shaped.

It’s a hoot that the happy ending has Albert agreeing to walk away from New York and showbiz and head instead for the tiny town of Pumpkin Falls, Iowa to teach English and Domestic Science, with Rose as his wife. Hard to make that outcome fly as a happy ending these days!

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

As with Neglected Musicals’ rehearsed readings, the cast performed with book in hand. But the standard of performance was remarkable given such little rehearsal time. James-Moody as Albert, Josie Lane as Rosie, Adèle Parkinson as Kim and Nancye Hayes as Albert’s mother were all sensational, performing with just the right, light comic touch. But kudos to the entire cast, each of whom did a fantastic job. Praise too to musical director Hayden Barltrop on keys.

Even without being fully staged, Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful, thoroughly satisfying performance that gave audiences a welcome chance to experience a classic musical comedy. I look forward to the next Mystery Musical with great anticipation.

As for Squabbalogic, which just this week won four 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards for its glorious production of The Drowsy Chaperone, the company just seems to go from strength to strength. Let’s hope funding follows.

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Carrie the Musical

Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 15

Hilary Cole as Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

Hilary Cole as a bloodied Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

How wonderful to finally have the chance to see Carrie the Musical – that most infamous of Broadway flops.

Based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel and Brian de Palma’s 1976 movie, it opened on Broadway in 1988 where it survived just 16 previews and five performances. It comes to Sydney now in the reworked version seen off-Broadway in 2012 thanks to independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic.

Not only is praise due to Squabbalogic for staging the musical here for the first time but they have timed it well given the release this week of Kimberly Peirce’s film remake.

As most would know, the story centres on Carrie, a teenage misfit with a fanatically religious mother who is bullied remorselessly at school. Life isn’t much better at home, particularly when her mother discovers that Carrie has begun menstruating and treats it like the proverbial ‘curse’ from God.

Discovering that she has telekinetic powers, Carrie eventually takes terrible revenge when the bullying turns decidedly nasty at the high school prom.

It would be so easy to camp it up but director Jay James-Moody has played it straight, directing a terrific production, complete with litres of blood, that hones in on genuine emotion and human drama wherever he can find it.

Despite the rewrite, the musical – with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford and book by Lawrence D. Cohen – hasn’t ironed out all its problems. The book doesn’t have a great deal of emotional and psychological depth, while the new framing device, which has nice girl Sue  (the sole survivor from the prom) telling the story in flashback via interrogation, feels clunky and unnecessary.  The lyrics, meanwhile, too often veer to the obvious.

The songs are catchy and the score rocks along, though the number in which the kind, sympathetic teacher Miss Gardner urges Carrie to open herself up to love (“Unsuspecting Hearts”) feels inappropriate and unlikely – particularly with intercut dialogue like “Listen to me, you have beautiful eyes.”

Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed the show and felt for Carrie – here movingly portrayed by Hilary Cole in a very impressive Sydney debut.

Set in a burnt out gym, with tattered drapes adding a spooky feel, Sean Minahan’s set creates just the right atmosphere, while the telekinetic effects are nicely done.

James-Moody directs with a great deal of assurance and love, establishing a convincingly teenage vibe with his young, enthusiastic cast.

The most powerful scenes (and this is to do with the writing) are between Carrie and her mother Margaret – here superbly performed by Cole and Margi de Ferranti.

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole. Photo: Michael Francis

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole. Photo: Michael Francis

Cole is a real find. Petite and pretty, she makes a very believable transformation from dowdy outcast in baggy clothes– her shoulders hunched, her eyes constantly downcast – to blossoming Prom Queen. Her pure voice is lovely and she sings from the soul, really connecting to the lyrics so that your heart goes out to her.

De Ferranti is in fine form vocally and dramatically as Carrie’s bitter, fanatical mother, giving her a crazed air. Beneath Margaret’s avenging fear and Carrie’s desperate need to escape, the two of them convincing portray the needy love between them.

Adèle Parkinson is also lovely as all-American-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Sue, with strong support from Prudence Holloway as bad girl Chris, Toby Francis as her too-easily led, loser boyfriend Billy, Rob Johnson as good guy Tommy, Garry Scale as wry teacher Mr Stephens and Bridget Keating as Miss Gardner, along with the rest of the ensemble (Tim Dal Cortivo, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Andy Johnston, Monique Sallé, Zach Smith and Maryann Wright).

Musical director Mark Chamberlain leads a sharp, eight-piece band, seated in the balcony above the stage.

Despite the show’s shortcomings, Squabbalogic once again give us a smart, high-energy, engaging production of a rarely seen musical that musical theatre aficionados won’t want to miss.

Carrie the Musical runs at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until November 30. Bookings: 9351 7940