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Theater Review: 'Bye Bye Birdie' at the FAC an electric performance

By: T.D. Mobley-Martinez td.mobley-martinez@gazette.com
April 5, 2017 Updated: April 5, 2017 at 1:56 pm
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Bye Bye Birdie - FAC Theater Wednesday March 29, 2017. Photo by Jeff Kearney.

They say that the odds of being struck by lightning are one in more than a million.

This April, the Fine Arts Center's production of "Bye Bye Birdie" greatly increases your chances with two-plus hours of high energy singing and dancing, as well as electric performances by a large and talented cast.

The 1961 Tony winner, which runs through April 23, is also charmingly self-aware, genially poking fun at teenagers, parents, the music industry and the mindless adoration of celebrities, especially the kind that swivel their hips behind a microphone. All of it comfortably seen through the lens of the late 1950s.

Relating the story, though, will leave you in a tangle of plotlines. There's Albert Peterson, a panicked agent who will lose his meal ticket when his rock crooner Conrad Birdie (Zachary Seliquini Guzman in another great performance) is drafted. And his secretary and love interest Rose Alvarez, who can manage everything except convincing Albert to become an English teacher and marry her. Or what about Kim MacAfee, the love-addled teen who will get a smooch from Birdie as a publicity stunt to capitalize on the crooner's departure?

Between storytelling and the overstuffed menu of tunes, it's an amusing a lot of a lot.

Bye Bye Birdie - FAC Theater Wednesday March 29, 2017. Photo by Jeff Kearney.  

With all that going on, it makes sense that Jonathan Spencer created a minimal set that elegantly fleshes out the corners of real life - a slice of a bric-a-brac kitchen here, a desk and a piano standing in for Peterson's office there. The unifying element and one that quietly frames the action: A Mondrian-like backdrop of panels that literally colors every scene. His lighting design is also smart.

There's not enough space here to do justice to director Nathan Halvorson, who also choreographed the heck out of "Birdie," and his cast.

Casey Fetters is effervescent, pouty, superior and sweet as Kim. Fetters' transitions - from a girl just pinned by a local boy ("How Lovely to Be a Woman" and "One Boy") to a girl done with love ("What Ever Did I See in Him?") to one nervous to find herself in the arms of her idol ("A Lot of Livin' to Do") - showed considerable maturity as an actor and vocalist.

As Albert, Kevin Pierce seems like he stepped out of a Jack Lemmon movie from the early '60s (thanks, in part, to Janson Fangio's costumes). Pierce, who killed it as Pinocchio in the FAC's "Shrek," is so right in this role that it's easy to forget that you're watching a performance.

You might recognize Alex Campbell, who plays Rose, from recent FAC productions like "9 to 5," where she gave unexpected dimension to a small role. She surprised me again during this preview performance, this time with her ease as a lead character. She made Rosie 3-D in a sea of (intentional) stereotypes. Her vocals, especially in "What Did I Ever See in Him?," were star worthy.

In the last few years, Jen Lennon has really come into her own as a character actress capable of navigating strong female characters with attitude, individuality and a voice bigger than Texas. She doesn't disappoint as Albert's overbearing mother Mae. Lennon seems to try on this outsized character with real glee, distilling every unappreciated mother's secret thoughts into expert bluster and manipulation of everyone in her path.

As Kim's dad, Scott RC Levy plumbs every midcentury comic TV and film father to fill out Harry MacAfee, a pulling-his-hair-out, I'm-turning-this-car-around paterfamilias with a soft spot for Ed Sullivan. His Harry is seductively familiar and yet rendered as only Levy, who was similarly masterful in the FAC's "The Drowsy Chaperone," could. I hope we see Levy, who is the FAC's producing artistic director, on this stage again soon.

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