Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

Full disclosure: I acted in no less than three productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” while growing up: at camp, in middle school, and yet again in high school. I know the show by heart – word for word, song for song. At that time, I can’t say that I thought too highly of the show. Why couldn’t we do something darker, or more substantial, or by Sondheim?

It’s only now I can see what a perfectly built musical comedy it is. The way it depicts warring generations reminds me a little of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the chaos that ensues when different worlds collide. The script is genuinely funny and character-driven. And the score absolutely can’t be beat.

If you’re reading this review, chances are that you’ve already seen – or even performed in – a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” too. And I bet that you too were probably looking forward to the musical’s first Broadway revival. And it breaks my heart to confess that I think my productions, even though they were not top-quality even by amateur standards, were probably just as good if not better than the musical’s Broadway revival.

Though occasionally entertaining, it suffers from weak direction and the catastrophic miscasting of John Stamos, Gina Gershon and Bill Irwin. Robert Longbottom's staging is marked by quick movement, bright colors and a suave, geometric set design.

The show itself, which premiered in 1960, remains virtually unchanged, except for the deletion of the "Shriners' Ballet" and the addition of the 1963 film version's title song as a cheery finale. In a nod to "High School Musical," the kids of Sweet Apple, Ohio are cast with genuinely young teenagers, all of who display infectious energy.

Unlike Ann-Margret's campy sexpot performance in the film version, 14-year-old Allie Trimm is naturally sincere and sweet as Kim MacAfee. As teen idol Conrad Birdie, Gerard Nolan Funk is more Zac Efron than Elvis Presley, lacking the dangerous sex appeal required for the role. Oddly, Funk looks almost the same physically as Matt Doyle, who is pretty charming as Kim’s boyfriend Hugo.

John Stamos, playing the overgrown mamma's boy Albert Peterson, has a pleasant singing voice. But he works so hard to act like a cutesy nerd in the style of Jerry Lewis that his performance quickly grows irritating. He is far more at ease as a romantic heartthrob in ballads like "Baby, Talk to Me" and "Rosie."

Gina Gershon brings real sex appeal to the role of Rose, Albert's long-suffering secretary and love interest. But her failed attempts to sing and dance are pathetic and painful to endure. She even appears self-conscious and embarrassed of her inabilities. (I was particularly troubled by a New York Times feature article from last weekend where Charles Strouse claimed that Stephanie J. Block, who played Rose in the Roundabout's preliminary workshop version of the revival, didn't have what it takes to play Rose. Well, at least the very least, she would have been able to sing and dance the role. I'd rather have an adequate leading lady than a miscast C-list movie actress any day.)

Bill Irwin, though a brilliant clown, is so physically over-the-top as Mr. MacAfee that he is out-of-synch with everyone else. Instead of singing, he makes weird noises, depending on Dee Hoty, who plays his wife, to bail him out. On the other hand, Jayne Houdyshell is a comedic delight as Albert's passive-aggressive mother.

The 16-person orchestra, performing a slightly revised version of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, sounds reasonably strong, if occasionally tinny. Most problematic is the complete lack of violins in its string section. But seeing as the orchestra for the Roundabout's revival of "The Pajama Game" was roughly half this size, I was pretty satisfied. And I was truly glad that the show's gorgeous overture was not cut. When I heard that the film's title song would be added, I feared that it would be used to open the show and replace the overture.

With wonderful songs like "Put on a Happy Face" and “Lot of Livin’ to Do," on top of a brilliant script, "Bye Bye Birdie" deserved much better than this inadequate revival. You leave the theater feeling unsatisfied and angry at the Roundabout Theatre Company for messing up yet another classic musical.

Footnote: Wednesday night’s final preview performance of “Bye Bye Birdie” took an unexpected 15-minute pause when its set broke down, according to several theatergoers who were in attendance. The pause occurred in the middle of act one, about a minute before John Stamos was to sing “Put On a Happy Face” to six sad teens. “Girls, I’ll be out to cheer you up as soon as we fix this mess,” he told them.

While technicians worked to solve the problem, Stamos entertained the audience with improvised comedy. He invited his former “Full House” co-star Bob Saget, who happened to be in the audience, to join him. Saget, who spoke into a body microphone on Stamos’ forehead, remarked, “I’m really glad your crotch is not miked.”

Comedian Don Rickles, also in the audience, asked, “Are they gonna fix it or is this going to be a weekend?” Gina Gershon also pitched in, showing off a poster of John Stamos in his younger years and performing a family-friendly tribute to her film “Showgirls.” When Gershon asked Stamos about “Full House,” he described it as “kind of like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ but a sitcom.”

I can't help but think that this incident sounds more fun than the actual production.

Henry Miller's Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., 212-719-1300, Through Jan. 10.


At October 16, 2009 at 12:09 PM , Blogger Greene said...

Yikes, this sounds terrible. Still, I can't resist a trainwreck, so I will have to attend. Just for the sake of accuracy though, "Birdie's" magnificent original orchestrations were by Robert "Red" Ginzler and not by his protege Jonathan Tunick. I can't think of a better man to reimagine Ginzler's work though, since Tunick trained under Ginzler and it was the "Birdie" orchestrations that got him interested in scoring for Broadway in the first place.

One other small correction. "Birdie" doen't really have an overture per se. The original production actually used a comedic newsreel (with music written and orchestrated by Strouse himself) in place of a standard overture. The lovely "overture" heard on the original cast album is actually the entr'acte, although it has become the default overture of choice for many productions.


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