Review: Bye Bye Birdie Flies Into Kennedy Center With Plenty of Fun

Ephraim Sykes, Christian Borle, and Krysta Rodriguez star in the show’s limited run in DC.

Ephraim Sykes (center) leads the company of Bye Bye Birdie at the Kennedy Center.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The Kennedy Center dedicated its latest weeklong Broadway Center Stage production, Bye Bye Birdie, to Chita Rivera, a Kennedy Center honoree and original cast member of the show’s Tony Award-winning 1960 Broadway run. The late legendary actor would have been very impressed.

With just a few weeks to prepare, a timing scenario all shows in the special series must cope with, the Marc Bruni-directed production feels like a well-oiled, extravagant machine, complete with outstanding choreography by Denis Jones, colorful and innovative scenic design by Lee Savage, and a lively orchestra led by music director John Bell. It rivals much of what’s on Broadway stages today.

Bye Bye Birdie — with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams, and a book by Michael Stewart — tells the story of music executive Albert Peterson, his sweetheart and secretary Rosie Alvarez, and an Elvis-like singer named Conrad Birdie. In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, the trio descend upon Sweet Apple, Ohio, where the megastar will deliver “One Last Kiss” before answering a draft notice and joining the army. Inspired by real-life events with the King, the musical parodies the frenzy of screaming teen fans and the bewilderment of their parents caught up in the rock-’n’-roll icon’s orbit.

Christian Borle and Krysta Rodriguez star in Bye Bye Birdie at the Kennedy Center.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Beaming with charisma and spot-on comic timing, Christian Borle is the ideal Albert, trying to balance managing Birdie’s less-than-press-appropriate lifestyle with his secretary-girlfriend who is losing patience waiting for a ring, and his guilt-inducing mother who has nary a kind word to say and tries to manipulate her son at every turn. Borle is well polished in making audiences smile, and his antics in “Put on a Happy Face” seemed very on-brand. Sarah Chiu as Helen matches Borle’s enthusiasm step-by-step on the tune.

Krysta Rodriguez channels Rivera’s grace and emotional passion as Rosie, showing her range from sweet (“An English Teacher”) to sexy (“A Spanish Rose”), effortlessly capturing the character’s multifaceted personality and vibrant spirit. She and Borle enjoy a delightful chemistry onstage, the result of the characters’ lively and quarrelsome banter.

Ephraim Sykes oozes charisma and stage presence with an electrifying performance that seamlessly blends elements of Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Prince, infusing Conrad’s “Honestly Sincere” with an irresistible energy that mirrors the fervor of the singer’s adoring fans in the show.

A standout of the production was Ashlyn Maddox, playing Kim MacAfee, the 16-year-old Conrad Birdie fan selected as the lucky recipient of “the kiss.” Last seen in DC in Arena Stage’s Ride the Cyclone before performing with Parade on Broadway, Maddox has a flawless voice and not only held her own but shone brighter than the heavy hitters involved in the production. Keep an eye on her!

Henry Kirk, Richard Kind, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Ashlyn Maddox appear in Bye Bye Birdie at the Kennedy Center.
(© Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

That’s not to take anything away from the supporting cast, which is stellar. Richard Kind is a hoot as Harry MacAfee, Kim’s dad, who hilariously expresses his thoughts on the current generation in the song “Kids,” along with his wife, Doris (an underused Jennifer Laura Thompson). Kind’s mannerisms are not to be missed, especially when he’s portrayed on screen on the Ed Sullivan Show. Rounding out the family is 12-year-old Henry Kirk, who, as Lisa’s brother Randolph, gets some laughs and shows off his sweet voice.

Caroline Aaron, the familiar voice of Shirley Maisel from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is almost unrecognizable as Mae Peterson, Albert’s meddling mom (props to wig designer Tom Watson and costume designer Linda Cho for that). And even though Mae possesses the all-too-familiar overbearing mom tropes, Aaron puts a fresh spin on the intrusiveness and plays it for laugh after laugh.

A talented teen ensemble takes part in a smiling-inducing “The Telephone Hour,” where phones are cleverly mixed into the choreography, and the ensemble is filled with high-spirited and strong singers.

A video monitor hangs overhead, never distracting from what’s happening onstage but offering added information and content, especially when the MacAfee family gets on TV and Kind milks every shot. Projection designer Nathan Scheuer also rolls credits during the stage bows, which I felt was a nice touch.

Despite being a 60-year-old show set in the late ’50s, the Kennedy Center’s production of Bye Bye Birdie felt fresh and modern, and its Broadway-heavy cast is not to be missed. The show has a very limited engagement, playing through June 15, so don’t let it say “bye bye” without checking it out.


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Bye Bye Birdie

Closed: June 15, 2024