Bright, Boyant “Birdie” Portends Another Special Summer with Lyric

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BY CLIF” WARREN

Lyric Theatre’s 50th Summer Season opened Tuesday night with “Bye Bye Birdie,” a bright, buoyant tribute to the 1960s, when Elvis and rock and roll were all the rage. “The King of Rock and Roll” marked the trail for male ‘teen idols’ clear up to today’s Justin Bieber.  At the center of this satirical story is the darkly handsome golden boy, Conrad Birdie (Eric Ulloa), whose swivel hips, baritone moan and hunky body send the females into banshee screams and fainting fits.

Realizing the money schemes that can attach to such a phenomenon, Albert Peterson (David Elder), a perennial mama’s boy, potential English teacher, and current owner of a music business, pulls his romantically devoted Hispanic secretary, Rosie (Kat Nejat) into a plan to enlist all of Conrad Birdie’s many fan clubs in a nationwide contest among his teen devotees for a young lady to share one last kiss from their idol before he enters the Army.

Elder, whose engaging smile, superb “Mad Men” attire, and elegant dance style—whether tap or soft shoe, solo or paired—takes  appealing charge of the musical immediately. He also appears meant to partner his co-star, the amazingly talented and lovely Kat Nejat, whose graceful dancer’s line and attitudes indicate years of expert dance training. Like Elder, beautifully costumed (all new ones and made in OKC), Nejat received the expert attention of Lyric designer Jeffrey Meek. Petite and curvy, Nejat is a fashion statement throughout the show clothed in the tiny waists and full multi-skirts that represented the supreme style of the dresses of the times.

Nejat, in this Lyric tribute to Chita Rivera, recreates the Rivera heroine, Rosie, who starred opposite Dick Van Dyke in the 1960 Broadway premiere. Rivera first gained national recognition as Anita in 1957’s “West Side Story,” but “Birdie” solidified her star status.

To parlay the Conrad Birdie event of the plot from ordinary into sensational, the dominant Sunday evening ‘60s TV variety entertainment line-up—“The Ed Sullivan Show”—Peterson convinces the host and producers to telecast Birdie’s last kiss.

Few could image the impact on the MacAfee’s household, when their daughter, Kim (Meredith Tyler), is chosen to receive Conrad’s last kiss as a civilian pop star. The whole tiny town of Sweet Water is totally transformed and happily overwhelmed by the choice, or possibly suicidal, like Kim’s steady high school boyfriend, Hugo (Eloitt Mattox).

Kim’s father, Harry MacAffee (Monte Riegel Wheeler) in fact is outraged too that the potential sexual menace, Conrad, is to reside in his home for the occasion, and her mother, Doris (Mandy Jiran), forced into now being her daughter’s friend rather than her parent, finds the transformation almost more than she can bear.

Comic chaos abounds. Zinger one-liners keep the merriment moving and the plot springs ahead amid the pleasantly upbeat songs penned by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. Two numbers from the score—“Put On A Happy Face” (first delivered by Albert and a teen chorus) and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” (voiced by Conrad, Kim, and the teens)—soon earned a place among the American standards classics.

Other memorable tunes, like “One Boy” and “One Last Kiss” add sure charm and emotional texture, while the humorous ones like Birdie’s “Honestly Sincere,” and Rosie’s “Shriner’s Ballet” skit along with her ironic “Spanish Rose” turn (made classic by Chita Rivera in the Broadway production) allow Eric Ulloa and Kat Nejat to project their characters with force and show off their superb personal acting and entertaining skills.

Ever present to prevent son Albert from pairing with his secretary, the popular OKC actress Charlotte Franklin turns the Mae Peterson role of the downtrodden, neglected mother into a gem by her squeezing every word emphasis or parting gesture for a laugh.

While the “Ed Sullivan Show” event churns up a wave of romantic suspense peaks in several instances, the comedy stays steady and unrelenting.

Director/choreographer Lyn Cramer, who long ago earned her wings from the muse of dance, puts her highly talented crew through their light-as-air dance routines and character delineations as if with a magic wand, and musical director David Andrews Rogers wields his baton to induce sparkling energy as well as romantic bliss from his skillful musicians.

Lyric’s “Bye Bye Birdie” leaves happy faces all around.

Performances are this week only at 7:30 p.m. through Thursday evening, Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8, and the show, at the Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker, is suitable for all ages.

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