Bye Bye Birdie
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
October 20, 2009
Despite the negative buzz about this show and the review I unfortunately glanced through, I was excited about seeing this production. The new Henry Miller Theater, Broadway's first 21st century theater, promised to be something to see. Moreover, the Bye Bye Birdie score is an old friend, dating back to my mother playing her LP of the original Broadway production on the living room stereo. Of course, many of the talented folks for whom composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams, and company created the 1961 Tony Award-winning show were or certainly became theatrical luminaries: Dick Van Dyke playing Albert, Chita Rivera being the original Rose, Paul Lynde as Harry MacAfee, and Gower Champion at the helm as director/choreographer. Plus, the movie musical, starring a beautiful Ann-Margret as Kim MacAfee with Van Dyke and Lynde reprising their Broadway roles, still hums around in my memory banks. I have always loved Van Dyke's renditions of "Rosie" and "Put on a Happy Face,'' as well as the incomparable Lynde's comically engaging "Kids." Add to this the first ever live performance I attended when I was a kid: the local high school production of Bye Bye Birdie starring the local town sweetheart as Kim and featuring the town hoodlum as Birdie, both performances being equally delightful, the latter being a stroke of casting genius by the drama teacher. I will admit I had forgotten the intricacies of the story and was looking forward to re-visiting Michael Stewart's book.
It's a typically thin musical comedy plot. Conrad Birdie, a teenage rock and roll musical icon (based on Elvis) is drafted. His manager Albert comes up with a gimmick to send him off to basic training: Conrad will promote a new song, "One Last Kiss," on the Ed Sullivan Show live via remote out in Middle America, where he will bestow the kiss on the prettiest girl in town, teenager Kim MacAfee (and the head of the local Birdie fan club). The conflict comes from Albert's secretary Rose, from Kim's new steady boyfriend Hugo, and from Albert's mother Mae. Rose wants Albert to quit the family music business, fulfill his bliss as an English teacher, and marry her. Hugo wants Kim to perish even the thought of bussing someone else, let alone a famous womanizing rock star. Mother Mae wants Albert to forget the idea of marrying the Spanish hussy Rose and continue the family business. Albert loves his mother; Albert loves Rose. Kim loves Hugo; Kim "loves" Conrad. You get the idea. Naturally all ends up happily at the end, Albert with Rose, Kim with Hugo, Conrad with the army, and Mae with a grudging realization that her boy is finally a man. It's a cute story, with a few holes, maybe (it's never explained why Conrad has to stay with the MacAfees when he visits Ohio, for instance), but serviceable in the classic Broadway musical tradition. After all, the songs are the stars here.
Of course, there are stars in human form here, too: John Stamos as Albert and Gina Gershon as Rose. Both have had successes on the stage and they are both charismatic, so their casting doesn't seem at first blush to be out of the ordinary. These two get an "A" for effort, but neither really lives up to their roles' potential. It is really puzzling, except for the fact that Birdie is a traditional musical comedy written before the prevalence of audio amplification. The dynamics that must be used to put over these songs are of such energy that the performer has to call on all aspects of body and voice production, from the tip of the toes to the ends of the hair. Really.
There is no other way for an actor playing Rose to successfully sell the opening number, "An English Teacher," which on the page is simply a mundane piece of exposition. It has to be painfully important to Rose from the outset that her love, Albert, abandon his music industry job for a simpler life, with her, away from the glitz of show biz, as an English teacher. Unfortunately, Gershon never revs it up at the beginning. There is no energy, no passion coming across the orchestra pit. I think this has a lot to do with the performers relying upon microphones. She doesn't have to work hard to be heard, so the incredibly important start of the night comes across as glib.
Stamos is certainly very charming, but his Albert rarely gets past the orchestra pit as well. He seems too self-conscious in the role, almost apologizing for not being the Jerry Lewis clone he wishes he could be. Well, maybe he knows his limitations more than the production team does. At any rate, it was odd to see the star end up obviously winded after performing the big dance number ("Put on a Happy Face"). And I hate to say it, but his singing is just serviceable, with some pitch problems now and again.
The real pitch problem perpetrator, however, is Gershon. On several occasions she was just under the pitch, maybe a half or quarter tone, the kind that makes you, and literally made me, cringe. Gershon is beautiful, with a great figure that costume designer Gregg Barnes happily exploits. But there is no fire to her portrayal at all. I was sitting in the seventh row, center orchestra, and got nary a gleam of passion. There was more ardor in her red dress.
This semi-apologetic Albert and lukewarm Rose have practically no stage chemistry. Oops. Didn't someone read them together before casting?
Fortunately, there is chemistry on the stage elsewhere, and some passion, and some darn good musical comedy acting. The best of them is Jayne Houdyshell's performance as Mae. She clearly knows what play she's in and acts in a true musical comedy style, embracing the audience while maintaining connections with the company. She kicks the heck out of the role of Albert's mom, though she maybe tries too hard at times to carry her scene partners on her veteran shoulders.
Other veterans who squeeze the utmost from their roles include Dee Hoty in the fairly thankless part of Mrs. MacAfee (Kim's mom) and Paula Leggett Chase in the small but memorable part of Gloria Rasputin (the leggy blonde Mae tries to pawn off to Albert as replacement secretary for Rose.) It's fun to watch them in the musical comedy milieu where they are so much at home.
Another veteran, Bill Irwin, is also fun to watch, as he plays the role of the beleaguered father, Harry MacAfee. Though his singing is just passable and his choice of character voice is hard on the ear, Irwin brings his considerable clowning talents to his portrayal. The thing is, he doesn't seem to be in the same production as the others—his broadly physical work seems out of place.
One has to fault director/choreographer Robert Longbottom for this. In fact, there appear to be at least three styles at work here: low comedy physical antics, musical comedy proscenium acting, and close naturalism better suited to the camera.
Set designer Andrew Jackson and lighting designer Ken Billington provide a cohesive environment, however. Jackson's set is awesome—early sixties period pop married to modern technology, using clever projections, moving floors, and sliding panels. Set pieces are fitting and sometimes ingenious: the "Telephone Hour" phone booths are simple and wonderful and lended to some inventive choreography exuberantly performed. And one should almost see the show just to see how the life-sized train travels across the stage. Lighting all this, Billington's use of bright saturated color plays beautifully off the set elements and the actors alike.
Less successful in my view is costume designer Gregg Barnes. Apart from the gorgeous and flattering costumes made for Gershon, his palette choices and patterns are perplexing. It is clear he is going for a comic book vibrancy, but sometimes that look is just distracting. It would appear that all three designers were not on the same page.
As the ingenue lead, Kim MacAfee, Allie Trimm, brings a youthful ardor to her role. Her simple honest believability is most welcome. She certainly looks the part and gives a solid performance. Matt Doyle is fine as Hugo, Kim's boyfriend. He is engaging and fun to watch. I only hope someone will teach these kids how to embrace an audience. A proscenium show such as this cries for actors to look out and play off the audience—but here Longbottom has let them get away with too, too much profile acting. I am sure the scenes feel "real" to the actors, but it's a shame the audience isn't let in on it more.
Nolan Gerard Funk gives us a nicely realized Conrad Birdie, whether he's dousing himself with beer, making the girls swoon to his hip-gyrating singing, or somberly contemplating a future in the army. He sings very well and his numbers are a pleasure.
Finally, all in all, perhaps the best reason to see this show is the other supporting actors. Those playing the adults are all stage veterans who clearly know how to be in a classic musical like Birdie. They bring a presence to the production that grounds it in Broadway style. Of special note must be the wonderfully sung male quartet in the roadside saloon. Now that's singing!
Those playing the teenagers are an exuberant bunch of talented youngsters. They delight in their choreography and singing. There is a passion in their work that sweeps up the audience in their collective joy.
The impressive opening video montage under the overture (well played by an excellent small orchestra and expertly conducted by music director David Holcenberg) sets the bar high at the outset. But despite the great sets, the talented supporting cast and the genuine efforts of the stars, the evening just never holds up. I liked my high school's production better.