Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association; Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle), and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Sean Carter Photography
Clockwise from left: Tamara PiLar (with glass), Lynnae Lehfeldt, Debbie Williams, Dani Cochrane, Sarah Kmiec
“Birthday Club” is Good, Raunchy Fun
Continuing its 56th season, Meadow Brook Theatre, located on the campus of Oakland University, offers a delightful Michigan premiere, “Birthday Club” by Minnesota playwright, author and sports star Phil Olson. Several years ago, MBT staged another of Olson’s works, “Mom’s Gift”, starring Cindy Williams (star of TV’s “LaVerne and Shirley”) and one of the current “Birthday Club” cast, Dani Cochrane. Olson specializes in lightweight, slightly risqué but very entertaining comic shows, set mostly in the upper Midwest. They have yet to see the lights of Broadway, off-Broadway, or even off-off Broadway, but they are very popular with community theatre groups all over the US.
The story takes place entirely in the home of small business owner Cheryl, one of five members of a club she and her friends created some years earlier to celebrate their birthdays and to support a dying friend – no men allowed. During each birthday celebration, the ladies really let their hair down and spend their time together dishing dirt, poking fun, complaining about menopause, their kids and the men in their lives, all the while drinking much, much too much. Besides Cheryl, there’s the hugely pregnant Kathy who knows she shouldn’t be drinking but does, anyway, for her own reasons. And Abbie, a homemaker married to a wealthy man, has too much time on her hands. Plus the slightly trashy and flirtatious Emily, looking for the ultimate “brown chicken brown cow” experience, a source of a big part of the laughs onstage and in the audience. If you need to, look it up. You’ll be surprised at the absolutely transcendent cultural significance of this phrase!
The audience surrogate, if there is one, has to be club newbie Sarah, who’s a cultural symbol all by herself as a member of the super-strict “Heemish” religion. According to Sarah, they’re just like the Amish, except the Heemish use coasters. Sarah doesn’t drink, cuss, gossip or even think about sex – even though she’s engaged. The perfect setup for many moments of low-brow humor, lame jokes, and amazing plot twists. Through her, we learn about the other ladies, and of the touching origins of the Birthday Club – the friend who died and whose spirit presides over their gatherings like a cooling breeze.
The cast, all MBT veterans, is nothing short of spectacular, with great timing and really strong characterizations, all vividly drawn in attitude and movement under the guidance of director Travis Walter. This worthy ensemble takes what could be mediocre material and transforms it into something special. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of “The Women”, Clare Booth Luce’s Broadway smash and hit film from over 80 years ago, with an all-female cast who loved to dish and gossip.
Lynnae Lehfeldt as Cheryl leads the way, skillfully balancing snark and sympathy. Sophisticated Abbie, the envy of her friends because she “doesn’t have to work”, is played with lively, likeable charm by Tamara PiLar. Dani Cochrane tackles the role of the expectant Kathy with just the right amount of tough, crusty bitterness, a nice contrast to Sara Kmiec’s babe-in-the-woods innocent Sarah. She’s goofy, naïve but non-judgmental, always chirping and optimistic. Which, naturally, really irritates everybody. Debbie Williams plays mankiller Emily with sexy gusto, strutting her stuff at every opportunity, and soon has all of her friends up in arms.
A really nice touch: At the beginning of each scene, the cast makes a flamboyant entrance (courtesy of choreographer Debbie Williams), one-by-one, dancing to various birthday-themed songs, each in character.
The audience at a recent matinee performance included what looked like many groups of women, seated together and all having a great time. If you’re looking for laughs and raunchy fun, join the “Birthday Club” and bring some friends.
Now through February 5, 2023
Tickets $37 to $46
Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309
A special note: As Covid-19 is a constantly changing situation, MBT will be monitoring and adhering to the guidance given by the CDC, the State of Michigan, the Actor’s Equity Association, and Oakland University. Check the Meadow Brook Theatre website at www.mbtheatre.com for the latest information on efforts to keep everyone safe.
This theater operates under an agreement between the League of Resident Theatres and Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers of the United States. The theater operates under the agreement with the International Alliance of Theatre Stage employees, Local 38.
Meadow Brook Theatre’s season is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, the Fred and Barbara Erb Family Foundation, the Shubert Foundation and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.