Review: Bye Bye Birdie – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Brisbane Powerhouse

Decades may come and decades may go, but tweenage girls – whether they’re swooning over Elvis, screaming for The Beatles, or weeping at the feet of One Direction – are the unchanging glue that holds together the fabric of rock ’n roll. Feel free to quote me. If you want further proof of this fact, Harvest Rain’s latest production, the all singing, all dancing, all squealing 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie, delivers it in spades.

50’s rock ‘n roll heart-throb Conrad Birdie (Danny Lazar) has been drafted into the army *gasp* – but, before he heads off to war, his manager, Albert Peterson (Callan Warner) has organized for him to bestow ‘one last kiss’ upon an average American small-town girl. Enter Kim Macafee (Lauren Heidecker), her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Macafee (Cameron Rollo and Dana Musil), her best friend and rabid Birdie fan, Ursula (Morgan Kempster), her newly ‘pinned’ boyfriend Hugo (Cameron Whitten) and the citizens of Sweet Apple, Ohio. Top it all off with a back story involving Albert’s jilted Spanish secretary, Rose (Casey McCollow) and his domineering mother Mae (Erika Naddei) and you have the makings of a rollicking ride.

If Bye Bye Birdie (book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse) were a meal, it would be a big hunk of the cheesiest cheese, served with a side of ham and washed down with a raspberry slushie. Harvest Rain’s first and second year interns have done a bang-up job of serving that up, nice and fresh. The score is full of favourites including “Put On a Happy Face” “Kids” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” – all delivered with punch.

Danny Lazar plays bad boy Conrad Birdie with a suitable dose of swagger and a lilting voice. Lauren Heidecker imbues the saccharine Kim Macafee with a sweet vivaciousness, and Cameron Whitten is endearingly daggy as the humiliated Hugo Peabody. Cameron Rollo and Dana Musil relish in their delivery of the 1950’s uptight parentals. I especially enjoyed Ms Musil’s quite literal commitment to the lyrics of “Put on a Happy Face”- the anthem of the 1950’s housewife. A mention must be made of Morgan Kempster – a delightful comedienne in the making – her Ursula would make even the most fervent Beleiber look apathetic, and Erika Naddei’s positively painful yenta is a lovely contrast to the wildly enthusiastic ensemble.

I’ve always believed that the foundations of a great show lie entirely in the strength of the ensemble. Clever principals are a dime-a-dozen, but an ensemble that knows when to be fabulous and when to fade into the background is hard to come by. Remembering that this is a student production, I think that this group of young performers is well on the way to achieving this balance.

My favourite performances of the night went to Callan Warner and Casey McCollow. Mr. Warner exuded a wonderfully Dick Van Dyke-ish charm as the put-upon Albert, and his warm voice was so easy to listen to. Ms McCollow’s Spanish Rose was beautifully truthful and her singing and dancing muy bien!

Tim O’Connor is right to be proud of Harvest Rain’s interns; the energy of this cast is positively infectious and their commitment is laudable. Of course, a burst of colour always helps, and intern designer David Lawrence, under the guidance of Josh McIntosh, has taken colour blocking to a whole new level. His psychedelic set and fun costumes, lit with confidence and verve by Jason Glenwright, really help this Birdie to fly.

Confession: I think I have a little bit of a crush on Callum Mansfield’s choreography. Not to get all tweenage on everyone, but it’s charming, and clever, and like, really cool. Which leads me to me to the complaints booth. I needed more perspective to see it properly. It was a venue thing. Tim O’Connor and his team have delivered a Birdie that is loud and proud, energy packed, full of colour and exploding with life. I just felt I was too close to it, especially in the full cast numbers. While we’re nit picking, the voice work in parts could have been more grounded (the speaking more so than the singing), and the sound, occasionally better balanced. That said, it’s a tough gig to do a whole show with a recorded backing track (it must be a cueing nightmare) so kudos to those in the booth for pulling it off.

The perennial student show, Bye Bye Birdie is an easy pill to swallow, and a good night out for the family. Take along your tweenage daughters for a dose of themselves, and take your Nan and Pop for a giggle.

Bye Bye Birdie plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse from November 29 to December 8th.