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Saturday, 24 October 2009 13:29

Broadway Review: "Bye Bye Birdie" and This Time We Mean It

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Bye Bye Birdie
Nolan Gerard Funk and the chorus of Bye Bye Birdie
Photo: Joan Marcus

Roundabout’s inaugural production at the new Henry Miller’s Theatre raises one major question, why?  Bye Bye Birdie originally opened on Broadway April 14, 1960 and starred Dick VanDyke, Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly.  This production is the first revival of this show since then; there is a reason for that.    

The production that opened at the newly christened Henry Miller’s Theatre is given a first rate production with gorgeous costumes by Gregg Barnes, a 1950s mod looking set by Andrew Jackness and enough colorful light by Ken Billington to make it all look like a bag of skittles was just ripped open with wild abandon.

Unfortunately, it could be strongly argued that there has never been enough substance to this show beyond its tuneful and lilting score to warrant a revival production.  Conrad Birdie, played competently by Nolan Gerard Funk, is a hip-thrusting rocker and parental nightmare based loosely on Elvis Presley.  He has been drafted and is heading off to war.  His manager Albert, played by John Stamos (Cabaret) is trying to concoct one last publicity stunt so he can change careers, become an English teacher and marry his sweet-heart assistant Rose, played by Gina Gershon (Boeing-Boeing).  If Albert’s mother Mae, played by the talented Jayne Houdyshell (Wit) has anything to do with it this Latin tart won’t get her claws into  her mama’s boy of a son.

Albert’s plot involves choosing a young female fan to receive the last kiss from Birdie before he goes off to war, live on television.  They choose Kim MacAfee, the recently resigned president of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club as the winner of that final kiss.   The MacAfees are played by Bill Irwin (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Fool Moon) and Dee Hoty (Footloose, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public) and their children, played by Jake Evan Schwencke (Distracted)and Allie Trimm (13).   

John Stamos in Bye Bye Birdie
John Stamos and the chorus girls of Bye Bye Birdie
Photo: Joan Marcus

The characters in Bye Bye Birdie are all central casting caricatures from Levittown.  Bill Irwin has totally run amok and gone beyond over-the-top with his performance of Harry MacAfee.  His bluster and broad gestures are reminiscent of the ones he exhibited in Fool Moon, his 1990s comedic tour-de-force created with David Shiner.  The more Irwin chewed on the scenery the more the audience loved it.  Although I’m sure the original Harry MacAfee, Paul Lynde did precisely the same thing.    Personally I found his performance cringe-worthy. 

John Stamos as Albert gives a respectable performance, despite the fact that he can’t really sing.  Gina Gershon as Rose is attractive, capable and evokes images of a young Chita Rivera, the original Rose.  Jayne Houdyshell as Mae is energetic and well-intentioned.  The chorus is high-energy and has an eagerness quotient through the roof.  Unfortunately, they can’t rise above the fact that there really is nothing to hang these characters on.  Conrad Birdie is an unsympathetic and unlikable character (unless you are a 16-year old girl.)  The worst fears these parents have to worry about is that their daughter will run away with this young scoundrel.  The chasm between the dilemmas of kids of the 1950s and today’s kids is miles wide. 

The play was directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom (Side Show).  He put together a slick production that looks like a million bucks.  The problem isn’t the production, it’s the piece.  On an even sadder note, it’s no wonder today’s audiences are eating this up; it’s empty calories.  It’s easy to digest and never fills you up. 

The only thing more boring than the inconsequential plot of Bye Bye Birdie is the new Henry Miller’s Theatre; it has all the charm and warmth of a high school auditorium.  I was so eager to see this show just to get a look at the new theatre.  It was built from the ground up with the exception of the façade which was saved because it is landmarked.  What a disappointment.  It joins the ranks as one of the most ugly theatre interiors third only to the Gershwin and the Minskoff. I'll say this for it, at least you have leg room and a comfortable seat.

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Read the production credits at the Internet Broadway Database

Review Roundup:

Ben Brantley for The New York Times – ““Bye Bye Birdie” may be the most painful example of misapplied talent on Broadway since the Roundabout’s production of “Hedda Gabler,” starring Mary-Louise Parker, last season.”

Terry Teachout for The Wall Street Journal – “Mr. Stamos couldn't carry a tune in a bucket with the lid welded on, and Gina Gershon, who plays his sexy secretary, isn't much closer to the mark. Mr. Funk is said to have been battling tonsillitis at the preview I saw, so I can't say whether he sounds better under normal circumstances, but what I heard last Sunday afternoon was far below Broadway standards. As for Bill Irwin, who plays Miss Trimm's father, his performance is impenetrably bizarre—I never did figure out what he thought he was doing up there—and he can't sing at all. Instead he emits disjunct honks and squeaks that make mincemeat out of Mr. Strouse's handsome melodies.”

Michael Kuchwara for The Associated Press – “Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom and his design team have given "Birdie" a bright lollipop sheen, with colorful sets and costumes that suggest a square, middle-class America dipped in DayGlo paint. If only some of the performers were as theatrical.”

John Simon for Bloomberg.com – “Still fresh at nearly 50, the 1960 musical “Bye Bye Birdie” rebounds on Broadway remarkably well as a takeoff on Elvis, rock and roll, and high-school hijinks, a triumph of lovable silliness. It also spoofs the shenanigans of show-business.”

Last modified on Thursday, 10 December 2009 21:36