The Sooner Theatre has opened its new with a take on "Bye Bye Birdie," a spirited musical satire that tells the story of a 1950s rock 'n' roll heartthrob named Conrad Birdie, whose career snags when he is drafted.
In effort to start a new life as a couple, Conrad's manager, Albert, and his secretary, Rose, make plans to cash in on Conrad's fame one last time by scheduling a kiss goodbye to a randomly selected Birdie fan, Kim MacAfee, whose hometown of Sweet Apple, Ohio, is turned upside down by the rock star's arrival.
Although it's entitled "Bye Bye Birdie," the musical's main characters are Albert and Rose, portrayed here by Paul Mitchell and Emily Ward, both of whom deliver confident, dynamic performances. Ward has a great voice and some sultry dancing skills that get put on display in Act II, while Mitchell delivers an energetic and nuanced performance.
As Conrad, Carl Culley has the looks and the voice, but doesn't fully express the charisma that made Birdie famous or the anxiety he must be feeling about going into the Army. The remainder of the supporting cast is above-average in most respects, with standout turns by Cindy Hanska as Albert's mother, Mae; and John Cargal and Paula Kim Sullivan as Harry and Doris MacAfee. Among the younger cast, Caitlin Royse and Evan Robison are excellent as the too-eager-to-grow-up Kim MacAfee and her bumbling boyfriend, Hugo Peabody.
The all-local cast proves that you don't have to go New York to find talented actors with great stage presence that could have easily supported a larger more elaborate production. Not to say that the limited backdrops aren't well-utilized, but additional scene changes would have been welcomed.
The lighting design by Jay C. Schardt saves the day by providing some much-needed contrasts between scenes with huge splashes of vibrant color across the backdrop. Kris Ocker's period costumes also do a lot to set the tone without going too over-the-top, save when appropriate. The truly fantastic band, directed by Keith Adams, infuses songs like "Put on a Happy Face," "Honestly Sincere" and "Kids" with a freshness and vibrancy that really brings Sooner's production to life.
"Birdie"'s satirizing of the late 1950s might have been subversive 60 years ago, but most of it seems pretty tame today. One exception is a truly peculiar scene set in the backroom of a bar in which Rose, on a quest to put Albert behind her, apparently decides to seduce a whole group of Shriners.
Sooner's production does have a few flaws, but they are few and far between, and the able cast always made a quick recovery. In all, director Brandon Adams has launched Sooner's new season off to a solid start with "Birdie."
Bye Bye Birdie stages at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at Sooner Theatre, 101 E. Main Street in Norman.