By Michael Stewart, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Stages St. Louis)

Jul 28, 1999 at 4:00 am

In musical comedy, fictional small towns are either Anatevka — enchanted villages beyond the blue horizon — or River City, cozy burgs where everyone might as well be brother and sister. In any event, a smug insularity is the defining characteristic. Therefore, before the Cossacks or the Music Man comes to call, the inhabitants perform a clutch of place-defining numbers, symbolically extending citizenship to the audience. Who wouldn't want to visit Brigadoon, when the clouds part? Or not juke and jive on the West Side with the Jets? But Sweet Apple, Ohio, the setting for the 1960 Michael Stewart/Charles Strouse/Lee Adams musical Bye Bye Birdie only comes to life when the manic Conrad Birdie maenads — virtually the entire teenage-girl population — take center stage.

And at the terrific Stages St. Louis production of this midcentury classic, the squeals achieve FM frequency. One of the first musicals to celebrate (or excoriate, depending on your point of view) "teen culture," Bye Bye Birdie concerns the week before the Biggest Star in America, Conrad Birdie, is to report for active duty in the Army. But his induction is coming not a moment too soon for Rose Alvarez, the sweetie/secretary of Conrad's manager, Albert Peterson.

Rose hatches a scheme whereby Conrad will leave civilian life with a bang — well, a buss, actually. She cannily contrives a showbiz moment wherein Birdie will appear on the once-mighty Ed Sullivan Show and will not only sing her beau's song, "One Last Kiss" (thus ensuring massive royalties), but symbolically bid adieu to the flower of young American teenybopperdom by planting a smooch on the rosebud lips of the fairest blossom of them all. Kim MacAfee is a typical teenager of the day — there's very little going on under her bouffant fall beyond a slavish devotion to pop star Birdie and her intense pride at being pinned by her beau, Hugo. But her delight at being selected threatens to tear her relationship, her family and even her town apart.

Can Sweet Apple survive so many strangers? Conrad Birdie, Albert, Rose and Albert's long-suffering show-biz-mad mom have their individual agendas when they arrive in town, but none of the group has so devastating an effect as Birdie. At Stages, director Michael Hamilton has mounted a cheerful cartoon of a production, and his fine company, led by Bill Lynch as Albert and Corinne Melançon as Rose, make for an entertaining evening of subversive Americana.

The real-life incident that prompted the 1960 musical — Elvis Presley's sojourn in the Army, an interlude that opened the gates for a raft of toned-down pop crooners — was the moment before rock really did rule the world. Composers Strouse and Adams have written a score that owes much more to Broadway 4/4 warhorse musical numbers than to real rock & roll, but it still has plenty of memorable tunes. "Put on a Happy Face" and "Kids" ("What's the matter with kids today?") have achieved pop immortality, but the real gems of this show are the songs that offer fugal counterpoint for the singers, like "The Telephone Hour" and "Hymn for a Sunday Afternoon."

The Stages production offers a bright company of splendid singers and dancers. Mom (Kari Ely) and Dad MacAfee (James Anthony) are, respectively, bemused and enraged by the invasion of their home by Birdie and his retinue. But daughter Kim (Randie Shane Brotman) couldn't be happier. She's the czarina of the local Conrad Birdie chapter. When she hears the news, she's over the moon, and Brotman plays the part with a thoughtful giddiness. But she, like Rose, is soon to have her heart broken, though not before Conrad has stormed the town.

And what a town it is. The sets, designed by Scott C. Neale, are deliberately surreal — bureaus and stove have drawers and doors in candy-apple colors and asymmetrical lines — as if graphic artist Kenny Scharf made Sears model homes. The colors — orange, magenta and lime green — mean that the actors must have been tempted to make their performances even more over-the-top than the gee-whiz script suggests, but there's a winning modulation to this presentation.

There are some fabulous production numbers in this version — the song introducing the Sweet Apple Kids playing telephone tag in "The Telephone Hour" has the ensemble positioned on a large set- piece complete with slide and ladders. They move like human gears in a kinetic gossip machine.

But the standout interlude of the evening is when Rose finally wearies of Albert's dithering and goes to Maude's Roadside Retreat to forget her sorrows in fruity cocktails (and a brace of Shriners). Choreographer Dana Lewis has designed a ballet between the outraged secretary and the comically perplexed Shriners that's elegant slapstick. Melançon is a long-stemmed beauty with Cyd Charisse's footwork and Lucille Ball's sense of timing. Wearing a black leotard and fringed skirt, Melançon invades the Shriners' meeting and drapes herself on the conference table with a sensual intent. One by one, the Shriners succumb to this Spanish seductress, and their deadpan consternation is both uniform and increasingly comic.

In an era of Andrew Lloyd ("No melodies, please, we're British") Weber, it's refreshing to hear full-fledged tunes sung clearly and well, and there's no sense of archness or slumming on the part of the cast, or a cutesifying quaintness to the rendition. It would be easy to update some of the nuances of these characters, but how wise to let them all play it straight — even when the part is already written as a cartoon. Zoe Vonder Haar as Mae Peterson, Albert's domineering mater, clumps onstage just often enough to completely discomfit everyone. Haar and Lynch have an endearing chemistry — the characters are written so that each is driving the other mad, and Lynch's evocation of cowed progeny and very slow burn is exquisitely calibrated.

Indeed, all the ensemble work is particularly smart and cohesive. The first-act closer, a production number set in the Sweet Apple movie theater, where Conrad finally gets to sing (well, part of) "One Last Kiss" on the Ed Sullivan Show, brings the entire town together, and the ensuing riot of singers and citizens — Kim, radiantly goofy in a prom dress; and Conrad, gleaming in silver rock-dude apparel — is lively and delightful, yet designed to set up the conflicts that animate Act 2.

But what of Birdie, the slangy hipster at the center? Randall Patterson has the poses and the moue, but he may have been given an impossible task, as well as the most challenging songs. For here is a pop star whose theme song is "Honestly Sincere" and whose every finger-snap has females collapsing like dominoes in Dior's New Look. Author Stewart seems to have regarded the character of Birdie as almost an afterthought — certainly the least fleshed-out character. Patterson is comfortable as the preening pop godling, but it's in his very brief speaking scenes with James Anthony as Mr. MacAfee and Albert that the actor comes most to life.

Because this is musical comedy — the enchanted village — when Hurricane Birdie blows out of town, of course, the lovers are reunited, but instead of destruction, the status quo of 1960s suburbia is perfectly and satisfyingly re-established. And although the audience at Stages St. Louis may not faint and swoon like the teenage fan club on the platform when Conrad ships out, they'll leave fully satisfied.