Like any flower, a new theater company can be something delicate that needs nurturing. On Thursday I got the opportunity to see the Blossom Trail Players, founded in 2015, stage an energetic and ambitious production of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Sanger High School. (The show runs through Saturday.) I admire the enthusiasm and hard work it takes to put together something as complicated as a fully staged Broadway musical. I’m not going to offer a standard, full-fledged review of the production, which is directed by Brittany Zenz, but I want to share five things I like about it — plus some constructive comments I hope can help the company raise the bar as it looks toward a promising future.
Five things I like:
Garrison Bennett’s voice. He plays Albert Peterson, the milquetoast manager of Conrad Birdie, the Elvis-like star about to be drafted into the army, thus disappointing his shrieking teenage fans. Bennett’s warm, smooth vocals on such standards as “Put on a Happy Face” and “Baby, Talk to Me” are first-rate.
The orchestra. What a luxury to have live music. Music director Andrew Esquer coaxes a fine sound from the young players in his solid ensemble, with some nice work especially from the woodwinds, brass and percussion.
Marisa Sanchez as Rose Alvarez, Albert’s long-suffering secretary and girlfriend who wants him to get out of show-biz management and become an English teacher. Sanchez — a good singer and an even better dancer — also manages to get a handle on the complex character of Rose, navigating not only the show’s obsolete sexism issues but some pretty thick racial stereotypes as well. I like how in “Spanish Rose” she is able to give a sophisticated read on what could have been an awkward moment.
The vocals in “Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” featuring Daniel Warnecke, Heather Awbrey Glosier, Naomi Warnecke and Jenna Roza-Cabello. This is one of my favorite songs in the show, and this cast did it proud.
Aaron Castro, a member of the children’s ensemble. Every time this young man is on stage, he lights it up with a terrific smile and a luminous stage presence. He has a small role in the show but makes a big impact. Part of making good theater is being able to convey that you love what you’re doing. Enthusiasm is infectious. If Aaron’s work in “Bye Bye Birdie” is any indication, I predict he’ll be entertaining audiences for years to come.
Now, on to a few comments looking toward the future:
“Bye Bye Birdie,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 30, and Saturday, July 1, Sanger High School. $12, $10 students and seniors
Better sound design is needed. Too often singers in “Bye Bye Birdie” are drowned out by the orchestra. It isn’t that the instrumentalists are too loud; the vocals are too soft. Sanchez, playing Rose, suffers from this the most. Her character never really seems to own the stage vocally, which is crucial. Acceptable sound should be a top company priority.
More attention needs to be paid to costume design. Costumes should flatter the bodies of the cast even if those bodies aren’t perfect. (In this regard, community theater can be much different than the professional stage, where generally everyone except character actors are expected to be in top-notch physical shape.) And the creative team needs to think about ways to be aesthetically satisfying while also being true to the show’s concept.
The scenic design needs a step up. Minimalism is fine, but it has to be augmented with smart and clever set pieces and more of a sense of location and atmosphere.
If actors aren’t good dancers, don’t have them dance. It’s better in terms of choreography to pick a core of people who feel comfortable moving on stage and highlighting them in ensemble dance numbers.
Know what to cut. The “Shriner’s Ballet” sequence in “Bye Bye Birdie” is one of the oddest and misplaced moments you’ll find in a Broadway show. (Rose, who is angry at Albert, goes on a nightlife bender. While the Blossom Trail production successfully clowns up the scene, the ensuing provocative choreography doesn’t match the rest of the show.) Lots of directors cut this number including from the most recent Broadway revival. That would have been a good plan here.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for all the time, effort and planning that went into this production. The motto for Blossom Trail is “theatre in bloom,” and as the company looks forward to more shows in the future, I’m excited to see how much it can grow.
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