William Ullrich, Walter Bobbie, Victoria Clark,and Jessica Grové in Bye Bye Birdie(Photo © Joan Marcus)
William Ullrich, Walter Bobbie, Victoria Clark,
and Jessica Grové in Bye Bye Birdie
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Encores! has two audiences. The larger group is thrilled for the chance to hear once again the score of a beloved musical like Bye Bye Birdie; the second group, which is smaller but very vocal, would prefer the series to present obscure shows that would otherwise never be revived -- e.g., the previous Encores! show, Pardon My English. Encores! was founded and became popular on largely the basis of the latter approach but has become a prisoner of its own success and now leans heavily on more famous shows to sustain the interest of less die-hard fans. Hence, this season, the series offered as two of its three shows Can-Can and last weekend's Bye Bye Birdie -- shows that any commercial producer might reasonably choose to revive without any help from City Center.

We're in the camp that says, "Give us the shows we might not otherwise get a chance to see." Still, you won't hear us bitching and moaning about getting to see the wonderful staging of "The Telephone Hour" that was a highlight of this Birdie. Nor are we complaining about seeing Karen Ziemba strut her stuff like "the national treasure" that she was called by Marge Champion during the Saturday afternoon post show discussion.

This was a worthy production of Birdie -- but it wasn't all that it might have been. While it's unfair to compare the leading players of this presentation with the icons that originated the roles on Broadway in 1960 (Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde, etc.), it's not unreasonable to expect genuine star performances from today's cast members. For the most part, the cast came through, with one notable exception: Daniel Jenkins in the role of Albert. The character calls for a charismatic star worthy of the love of Rose (Ziemba). Albert may be under the thumb of his mother but he must still be charming and sympathetic. Jenkins simply came off like a nebbish; his performance unbalanced the show, turning it into Ziemba's vehicle when the two leads should have been essentially equal. However, there are so many big production numbers in Birdie that this was more of an annoyance than a crippling blow. The score is wonderful, the vast majority of the company was buoyantly entertaining, and we were thrilled to be there to see the show. Who wouldn't be?

We'd like to make mention of a couple of tiny moments that just tickled us. The first was Tom Deckman's performance as Harvey Johnson in "The Telephone Hour." Perfection. The second was that moment when the Mayor's Wife, played by Kay Walbye, fainted upon hearing Conrad Birdie sing. This was the best fall we've ever seen on a stage: It was so real, so sudden, and so complete that we want to thank Waylbye for taking her lumps in the name of musical comedy. Bless you!

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Jackie Gordon in Say Cheese!(Photo © James Penlidis)
Jackie Gordon in Say Cheese!
(Photo © James Penlidis)
Cheese It!

Food has been an ongoing subject in the theater this year, and the big kahuna in that department is Chef's Theater at the ritzy Supper Club. As we wrote in an earlier column, that show is really about the cuisine; the entertainment is essentially an afterthought. Happily, we've just come upon a much better mix of taste and talent in Say Cheese!, a cabaret experience at the Laurie Beechman Theater. The food is much less elaborate (a cheese plate with bread and crackers) but the wine is no less plentiful, and the cost is just a fraction of what you'd pay for Chef's Theater. More to the point, the give and take between the star of the show and the audience is more fun, more intimate, and (dare we say it?) more educational at Say Cheese! As it takes place in a cabaret room, we're also pleased to report that the musical entertainment is more consistently tart and tangy.

Say Cheese! is hosted by Jackie Gordon, who takes the audience on a tour of artisanal cheeses; she explains what they are, why they taste as they do, and how they each mix with four different wines. We eat the cheeses, tasting the wines at every turn of the plate, and we rank each cheese and wine combo in comparison to an expert in the field.

Gordon is a winsome host who also happens to be a stylish singer; she entertains us with smartly chosen, famous tunes during each round of tasting, the songs linked in some clever way with the information we've just received. For instance, she wails through "Suppertime" (Irving Berlin) because one cheese is best served before dinner. This is a show to see either before or after your own suppertime -- there's not enough food served to call it a meal -- but don't attend Say Cheese! and then get behind the wheel of a car right afterwards. If the entertainment doesn't go to your head, the wine will.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]