BEVERLY - There is no reason the oh-so-dated musical "Bye Bye Birdie" should work in 2008. But the North Shore Music Theatre's production is an absolute delight, from the opening bars of the title song to the final "test pattern" on the faux TV screens positioned around the audience.
The credit clearly goes to director Michael Lichtefeld, who has stripped all artifice from the 1960 musical while keeping it anchored in the era of bobby soxers and Ed Sullivan. In addition, Lichtefeld has found a terrific cast to bring the world of Sweet Apple, Ohio, to life, especially Bianca Marroquin as Rose Alvarez and James Patterson as Albert Peterson.
The "Birdie" plot seems destined to collapse under the weight of cliche. When Conrad Birdie, a rock star modeled after Elvis Presley, is drafted into the army, his manager (Patterson) comes up with a publicity stunt that will send him out in style: A member of his fan club is chosen to receive "One Last Kiss," which will be broadcast to the nation on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Subplots involve the manager's long-suffering secretary (Marroquin), his domineering mother, and the steady beau of the fan who's chosen for the kiss.
But even though the show was written with its tongue firmly in its cheek, Lichtefeld's company delivers the goods as if their lives depended on it. When the ridiculous "Conrad Pledge" is recited by the members of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club, there is nary a smirk to be seen. "Put on a Happy Face," a song that cries out for parody, gets an unadorned performance from Patterson that builds on his comic gifts and then features a tap dancing chorus made up of local teens who are impossible to distinguish from the pros. Later, the "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do" production number layers the dancing to give the impression there are hundreds of people on stage, while keeping the choreography crisp and sharp.
Lichtefeld and scenic designer Howard C. Jones have some wonderfully creative ideas for North Shore's arena staging. The "Telephone Hour," often set on multiple levels, has the teenagers spread out around the stage and then uses a spiral staircase to create the multitiered effect for the song's climax. When Albert, Conrad, and Rosie take the train from New York to Sweet Apple, suitcases pop open to reveal a model train (complete with a miniature cow) that spins around the rotating stage to suggest the journey. When the MacAfee family discovers their daughter Kim (Alessa Neeck) is going to be kissed by Conrad on the nation's most popular TV show, their awe-struck response, "Hymn for a Sunday Evening," is punctuated by a slide show of acts that appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," culminating with a portrait of Ed Sullivan himself.
The standout moments also come as surprises for a show that is so familiar. Patterson's "Baby Talk to Me" has an unexpected poignancy, and Marroquin's "Spanish Rose" nearly bursts with her personality. Eric Ulloa's Conrad smartly avoids too many Elvis mannerisms, but seems to tower over his fans. His "Honestly Sincere" and "One Last Kiss" include all the right moves without going over the top. Even Mary-Pat Green downplays the shtick as Albert's overbearing mother, saving it up for the crescendo of "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore," earning her a show-stopping ovation.
The orchestra, conducted by Anne Shuttlesworth, makes even "We Love You Conrad" sound smart - no surprise in a production as fresh as the day the show was written.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the incorrect telephone number to buy tickets to North Shore Music Theatre's production of "Bye Bye Birdie" accompanied the review in yesterday's Living & Arts section. Tickets are available at 978-232-7200.