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A Lutheran Meets Elvis

Bye Bye Birdie. Lyrics by Lee Adams; music by Charles Strouse. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through March 30, 2013. Tickets $65-81. To order: 952/934-1525.
For those who grew up in the 1960s, phrases like bucket list, cloud computing, man cave, global warming were not yet in the lexicon. What was warming hearts, minds, and bodies was the new thing in popular culture of that day: “rock and roll.”
Of the many stars from those years of musical and cultural change, none was more significant than Elvis Presley.

Bye Bye Birdie was inspired by Elvis Presley’s army induction. Photo credit: Rick Spaulding

Bye Bye Birdie, a 1963 musical comedy film from Columbia adapted from the Broadway stage, was an early recognition of this addition to American culture. The drafting of Presley into the army serves as the story’s inspiration. Elvis himself was not cast in this movie, although a close friend was, the soon-to-be-famous Ann-Margret, a Swedish Lutheran from the northern Illinois neighborhood where this reviewer then resided.
The plot is really a satire of rock and roll rather than a celebration, one frequently performed even now by high school and college theater groups. It features an Elvis-type (Frank Moran) along with his manager, Albert Peterson, who is plotting to take advantage of the army induction to gin up publicity for a new record by kissing a fan live on The Ed Sullivan Show.

All shook up

Surprisingly, the basic plot then takes a turn in the second act as Elvis and his noisy fan club move to the background. The real story becomes an old-fashioned love match between Peterson (Michael Gruber) and his long frustrated girlfriend/fiancée Rose (Ann Michels). She wants to get married; he (or, at least, his mother) is not ready. How the two finally come together at the end provides the audience with many laughs and great entertainment.

Bye Bye Birdie, a 1963 musical comedy film from Columbia adapted from the Broadway stage, was an early recognition of this addition to American culture.

There is always tension in such productions, of course, when teen or young adult roles are cast out of a pool of older, more experienced performers. Some actors could well be the parents of the characters they seek to portray. After a momentary double-take, the Chanhassen cast makes it work, as one would expect of stage professionals.
The quality of talent in this Chanhassen production quickly draws one past the barely plausible story line to an appreciation of the pure entertainment offered. The songs are humorous if not quite serious. Gruber turns in an energetic and completely believable portrayal of the star’s manager. The highlight of the evening, however, is Michels’ spectacular “Spanish Rose” song and dance.
The script is family friendly, without the double-entendres almost de rigueour with entertainment today. The fish and prime rib entrées again lived up to the dinner theater’s established reputation for food, as did the great service.
Contrary to expectation, this Lutheran was not reconnected with the story and music of Elvis in this production of Bye Bye Birdie as anticipated. But he did develop a renewed appreciation for the culture in that time of massive societal change that came out of the ’60s, and for how traditional ideals of marriage and family were almost universally held back then, even those who were being caught up in the new rock culture. It is a reminder of how things have changed.

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