Theatre review: Bye Bye Birdie – big bold production could use a volume control

There is a whole lot of screaming going on at the Malkin Bowl as Theatre Under the Stars opens its 65th season with an energetic Bye Bye Birdie.  Problem is, it wasn’t just the teenage girls screaming in adulation for rock n’ roll superstar Conrad Birdie, as director Shel Piercy’s big, bold production translated into a loudness that I am pretty sure had most of Stanley Park’s woodland creatures quaking in their collective fur.

The cast of Theatre Under The Stars production of Bye Bye BirdieFortunately Director Shel Piercy redeems himself somewhat, with a great deal of help from choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt, by providing a continuous procession of grand production numbers, that one can almost forgive the volume.

Piercy isn’t afraid to ask his all of this mostly young and amateur cast.  From a wonderfully creative “The Telephone Hour” early in act one to the show’s finale that was so big and beautiful that it had me wondering just how many more people he could actually fit on stage, Piercy holds nothing back.

Likewise choreographer Stewart Hunt demands just as much of the cast, not afraid to push them in creating some of the best choreography I have seen in a while.   Given how much Stewart Hunt throws at this cast is a testament to their hard work; that most are both non-professionals and non-dancers makes it doubly impressive.

Daniel White, channeling his inner Neil Patrick Harris, gives us a delightfully quirky Albert Petersen but suffers, like most of the cast here, from a singular volume.  There is little that is understated in his performance, which I admit would have been a nice reprieve from all the other mania going on around him.  White does get to really shine in the charming and inventive “Put On A Happy Face”.

One of the few professional actors on stage, Lalainia Lindbjerg, gives a nice performance as Rosie, the woman fed up with Albert’s broken promises and his mother.  But while Lindbjerg does have a nice voice, she did seem to struggle in the lower registers.  As well, perhaps ironically, each time she had the opportunity to end a song with a big Broadway finish, she seemed to shy away.

Among the supporting cast, Courtney Shields provides some big laughs as a geeky Conrad Birdie obsessed fan and Stefan Winfield gives us a wonderful take on the great stone face himself, Ed Sullivan.

Set Designer Kevin McAllister helps director Piercy realize the grandness of his show, providing lots of space for the large cast while injecting some wonderful 50s colors and set pieces including black and white television sets on each side framing the stage-within-a-stage, and a great big cornflakes box that helps define the Macafee home.

Music director Kevin Michael Cripps directs a tight little orchestra beneath the stage that, despite its relatively small number, matches the boldness of what’s going on above them.  Sound designer Alex Livland could make judicious use of a volume control and I have to wonder how no one realized until opening night that hats and costume changes are not a microphone’s best friend.  Shame also that microphones failed during the big tap number. Costume designer Chris Sinosich gives an overall look as extravagant as the rest of Piercy’s vision.

It is evident that the cast and production team have embraced Piercy’s grand undertaking, with a verve and energy that is exhaustingly sustained over its overly long three hours (with intermission).  Now if only they could so something about the volume.

3 Out of 5 Stars Bye Bye Birdie

Book by Michael Stewart.  Music by Charles Strouse.  Lyrics by Lee Adams.  Directed by Shel Piercy.  A Theatre Under The Stars presentation.  On stage at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park through August 20, 2011.  Visit http://www.tuts.ca for information and tickets.

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