Last night was opening night for El Dorado Musical Theatre’s latest show, Bye Bye Birdie. This is the musical inspired by Elvis Presley’s 1957 drafting into the Army, and his famous “last kiss” before going off to serve his country. EDMT bills this as a “Rising Stars” production because the performers are all ages 6-14 (and that’s only 14-year-olds who haven’t started high school yet). But don’t call this “children’s theatre.” And don’t think of this as “Bye Bye Birdie Jr.” This is a full production, professionally done in every way. And so many of those kids on stage really are “rising stars” – full of personality and talent, and a delight to watch.
You may have seen Bye Bye Birdie before, but you’ve never seen it like this. When it debuted on Broadway in 1960, a 35-year-old Dick Van Dyke starred as Albert and a 27-year-old Chita Rivera was Rosie. And I’m sure the show, which is fundamentally about teenagers, has been staged realistically in hundreds or thousands of high schools over the years. But you’ve never seen it with the whole cast under high-school age. Frankly, I didn’t see how it could work, but I should have learned by now never to underestimate what kids can do under the tutelage of the pros at EDMT.
There are two casts for shows like this, and I saw the New York Cast. However, some roles are played by the same person in both casts. That is true of Zach Wilson, who will play Albert Peterson for every show. Zach is a complete performer, a veteran of 31 EDMT shows at the tender age of 13. He sings, dances and acts with a relaxed confidence that reflects all that experience. And as if that weren’t enough, this young man, who professes an interest in theoretical physics (?!), has been producing increasingly impressive scene-setting graphics (lately with animation) for the big screen at the back of the stage.
Another young performer who will play Mr. MacAfee for each show is Asten Fallavollita. His comic sense and timing had me laughing almost every time he was on stage. And as for the roles that are double-cast, I hesitate to single out individuals whose role will be played by someone different in the other cast, because I’m sure that other person must be just as outstanding a performer. But I can’t help giving a couple more names.
I’ve heard it said that a woman’s singing voice isn’t completely mature until she’s about 35. By that criterion, Kelly Maur, who plays Rose Alvarez, would be in her early 30s, instead of 14 as it says in the program. Her acting was equally mature, natural and yet inspired, right down to the grace with which she moved around the stage. Another standout in this show, and only in the New York Cast, was Emily Ziegler as Mae Peterson. This role is the archetypical Jewish mother, and Emily played it perfectly, with a flawless Long Island accent and a costume (fur coat, wig, hat, etc.) to match. There were so many other roles where a young performer had an opportunity (sometimes very brief) to really shine. They left me amazed – and wanting more – but these are “rising stars,” and I have every expectation of seeing them again. And I’m sure I’d be equally charmed by their counterparts in the Sweet Apple Cast.
One characteristic of these “Rising Stars” shows is that they try to give as many of the youngest ones as possible the opportunity to experience performing. And so, there are several numbers where the stage seems packed with the whole cast of nearly 80. And these scenes are pretty impressive: partly because all these kids are singing and moving together, and partly because some of them are so darned cute. And it’s hard to imagine that the intensity often generated by these enthusiastic kids could have been matched by the older casts that have performed this show in the past.
Considering the ages of the performers, you don’t get the quality of singing that is standard for other EDMT shows, but there are so many other features of this production that are outstanding – right down to the set pieces and costumes. (Where did they get all those saddle shoes? Surely, they haven’t been made since the 60s!)
The man sitting next to me had never seen an EDMT show before, let alone one of these “Rising Stars” productions. He couldn’t believe some of the kids were that young: they must have brought in professionals for the key roles, he thought. For all I know, he and his wife may have thought they were coming to see a show with adult actors. But they weren’t the least bit disappointed. They had a great time, as did I. And as I thought about the show on my drive home, there was a smile on my face the whole way.