Review by Paul Nelson
THERE are those among us who will go anywhere to hear a revival
of a musical. The BBC, not unaware of this, occasionally, too
rarely for some, gives concert performances of forgotten (by whom
this zealot asks?) musical scores. These are usually faithful
copies of the original first night.
Otherwise, one has to rely on the commercial theatre companies
to revive a musical. These, glaringly in the case of musicals
by Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter, usually mean that a management
loss of bottle forces the producers to add numbers from other
shows by the same authors, to pad out (what they consider) the
inadequate score. In most cases they are sadly deluded.
The other source of revivals of musicals are enterprising small
theatre companies. These, as a rule, stick to the once avant-garde,
shows written in more troubled European times by luminaries such
as Brecht, Weill, Brel and so forth, the latter commenting on
the state of the art of not only politics but love.
One theatre that consistently throws itself into the fray for
what I can gather is its own pleasure, is the Landor in
Almost invariably the house production company of this theatre
takes over its own space and delights its audiences with sometimes
obscure, sometimes obvious, revivals, and these enjoy a degree
of box-office success, depending on how the choice of show grabs
the audience, never a matter to be accurately forecast.
The rest of the year, this enterprising group leases its theatre
to other companies and often these musicals, and plays, wave the
Landor banner to excellent mutual good.
Currently on offer is Bye Bye Birdie, one of the most
delightful and original scores to come out of Broadway in the
latter half of the last century. It effortlessly eclipses Grease,
which was written some 12 years later, is subtler and has the
genuine feel about it.
First performed in 1960 the musical takes for its plot a pop
idol being drafted into the army and weaves in the saving graces
of a couple's love to temper and occasionally point the satire.
The plot: Conrad Birdie, massive rock pop star, is to be drafted
into the army. Albert Peterson, his agent, owes money to him and
faces ruin because of the draft. Rose, Albert's girl, who wants
him to give it all up and become an English teacher in a college,
dreams up a plan to get Albert off the hook, and say goodbye to
Birdie, publicly and definitely, so that they can be married.
Part of the plan centres on Birdie singing a new song written
by Albert; 'One Last Kiss', and bestowing a kiss on a high school
kid, a member of his fan club, in front of nation-wide TV, thus
providing a get-out for Albert, a hit for Conrad, and freedom
for Rose and Albert to get hitched.
The chosen girl has recently become 'pinned' by her boyfriend.
Pinned means they have sworn to be faithful to each other and
resist dating others. He is not wild about the idea that his girl
is to be kissed by her idol. So, most of the plot holds the attention
as it works out, what doesn't resolve lends itself to some choice
comedy. There is a happy ending.
The play is set in the age of Elvis and fanmania. The one contemporary
fact being that Elvis, in the middle of his successful career,
had to face the draft and join the army to do his national service
and this triggered the plot.
The score remains indestructible with more enchanting and hummable
tunes than any show post WW2 with the possible exception of Plain
and Fancy (I exclude those by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Berlin
Interestingly, the score is the first Strouse and Adams, the
writers, put together for Broadway. The book, too, is a tight
little affair, which manages to extend the one joke by adding
a little social comment, a little political satire and a lot of
romance with appropriate ballads.
In short, an evening to enjoy with an insouciance one can rarely
attach to more modern shows.
Oh dear, that little word. This is not a Landor production, it
belongs to a guest company and to begin with, it looks under-rehearsed.
It is, therefore, with regret that I have to point out that it
is a very thin affair, with most of the principals over-selling
their comedy by hitting the lead-in lines to the big joke as though
they were the joke itself.
This is like being hammered, in some occasions rhythmically,
with a large baseball bat. Naturally, the end result is a headache.
Chief among the sell-it brigade is Rose (Theresa Lawrence), every
line when not delivered as a curtain line is smashed into the
audience with the strength of the Williams sisters at Centre Court.
Believe me, in the past, I have longed for such delivery, but
this is not the show for it.
Overshadowed by this powerful rendition, Albert (Karl Clarkson)
has to work hard all night and fight for his stage space. It tends
to overbalance the evening.
It is a catching disease and both Kim (Lisa Cassidy), the girl
chosen to be kissed by Conrad, and Hugo (Glenn Macnamara), to
whom she has recently been pinned, succumb to it.
A surprise is that Conrad, the sex symbol himself (Spencer James),
is a rather willowy, slender and gawky man, not what one would
To be fair to the lad, he ingratiates himself into the favours
of the audience with his individual type of panache and puts across
his numbers, especially 'Honestly Sincere', which has rather
more to do with the plot line than be just a show number. The
song succeeds in both camps.
There is a neat mother from hell in Mae (Carol Ball).
Once again, as with most musicals these days, the evening is
a showcase for the dancing chorus, who throw themselves whole-heartedly
into the proceedings and generally save the bacon.
The screaming girl fans, in particular, lift one's heart and
made the evening for me. With a lacklustre chorus, the evening
would have been dire indeed. The score is still to be enjoyed
and proved to be an ear/eye-opener for some members of the audience.
A similar musical these days would have involved a boy or girl
band, not a soloist, and the prospect of the kids in this chorus
actually being the leads in the show is a lip-smacking prospect,
but, alas, that is not to be. We must enjoy their splendidly costumed
performances as a background to the action and wail that oft repeated
phrase 'if only'.
Bye Bye Birdie, Book by Michael Stewart, Music by Charles
Strouse, Lyrics by Lee Adams, Directed by Paul Tate, Choreographer
Richard Swerrun, Musical Director Amanda Morrison, Costume Designer
Susan Hale, Lighting Designer Miguel Ribeiro. WITH: Karl Clarkson
(Albert Peterson), Theresa Lawrence (Rose Alvarez), Rebecca Louis
(Deborah-Sue), Victoria George (Nancy), Kim Harvey (Ursula), Caroline
Newman (Penelope), Matthew Scott Hale (Harvey), Angus Jacobs (Peyton),
Mark Dugdale (Randolph MacAfee), Lisa Cassidy (Kim MacAfee), Lesley
Lightfoot (Mrs MacAfee), Paul Tate (Mr MacAfee), Carol Ball (Mrs
Peterson), Spencer James (Conrad Birdie), Jody Hall (Reporter,
Mayor, Anchor Man, Maude), Jess Plumridge (Reporter, Mrs Merkle,
Studio Assistant), Glen Macnamara (Hugo). Presented by Paul Tate
Productions in association with Dympna la Rasle and Time Of Our
Lives Music Theatre at the Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, Clapham
North, London SW9. Tickets 020 7737 7276.