Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

With its large cast and youthful characters, Bye Bye Birdie has been a natural for high school staging since it first appeared on Broadway in 1960. Unfortunately, it feels as if one of those productions has now landed on the Great White Way. The Roundabout Theatre Company revival, the first on Broadway in the half century since the original, is painfully flat and lacking the joy this sweet little musical deserves.

The evening is not a total loss, though, because one bright star shines out. Allie Trimm as Kim MacAfee sparkles with energy and talent. I predict this will be her breakout role and that she’ll have a great career in musical theatre. She seems to be having the time of her life, as opposed to the other leading players who look as if they can’t wait for the final curtain.

The “teenagers,” chosen from more than 1,400 who auditioned, also are full of life and fun to watch. It’s the adults who are lifeless and, in the case of the two leads, John Stamos and Gina Gershon, completely miscast.

Stamos, whose credits include “General Hospital,” “ER” and touring with the Beach Boys, is TV star handsome, but doesn’t have what it takes to sing and dance his way across a Broadway stage. His Albert Peterson would definitely make a better English teacher than a talent agent in show business.

As Rose Alvarez, Albert’s secretary and long-suffering girlfriend, Gershon lacks sizzle and seems to be walking through the role rather than living it. She was good last season in Boeing-Boeing, but straight comedy is far different than musical theatre and she lacks the magnetism needed. She does, at least, seem appropriate to be an English teacher’s wife.

Another disappointment is Nolan Gerard Funk as Conrad Birdie, the teen heartthrob, Elvis-like singer who has just been drafted into the Army and who journeys to Sweet Apple, Ohio, to give one last kiss to the president of his fan club -- Kim -- in a publicity gimmick dreamed up by Rose and Albert. Although his role is actually rather small, he gets to sing one of the show’s most famous songs, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” When he sang “You’re alive, so come on and show it,” I wished he had taken his own advice.

What a shame, because the songs -- music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams -- are charming, as is the book by Michael Stewart, all evoking a sunny, late 1950s small town America. I’ve always loved “Put on a Happy Face,” but Stamos and the Fan Club Girls are so weighed down by director Robert Longbottom’s awkward choreography that they all look uncomfortable rather than happy.

Luckily Kim gets to sing two of the other delightful tunes -- “How Lovely to Be a Woman” and “One Boy” -- and Trimm fills them with warmth and humor. I also enjoyed “The Telephone Hour,” although Longbottom’s choreography was a little strange here too. The teenagers are supposed to be at home, tying up their families’ telephone lines, but here they’re in brightly colored phone booths, with which they do a commendable job of singing and dancing. (Brightly colored is the way to describe most of the rest of Andrew Jackness’s sets.)

Others in the cast are Jayne Houdyshell as Albert’s overbearing mother, Mae, and Bill Irwin as Kim’s uptight father. Both of these characters are so over-the-top that they become annoying in most productions, but here it's at least impressive to watch Irwin wind his elastic body around the stage. Matt Doyle as Hugo Peabody, Kim’s boyfriend, Dee Hoty as her mother and Jake Evan Schwencke as her little brother, Randolph, are all fine.

The ensemble features Catherine Blades, Deanna Cipolla, Paula Leggett Chase, Riley Costello, John Treacy Egan, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Todd Gearhart, Patty Goble, Suzanne Grodner, Robert Hager, Nina Hennessey, Natalie Hill, Julia Knitel, Jess Le Protto, David McDonald, JC Montgomery, Jillian Mueller, Paul Pilcz, Daniel Quadrino, Emma Rowley, Tim Shew, Kevin Shotwell, Allison Strong, Jim Walton, Brynn Williams and Branch Woodman.

Bye Bye Birdie, which received the 1961 Tony Award for Best Musical and earned Tonys for the writers, is considered the first musical to introduce rock 'n' roll to Broadway, although it’s an extremely mild version. Later shows, like Godspell, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, would really earn the title of rock musicals. With this production’s brightly colored sets and costumes (by Gregg Barnes), I thought of more recent shows like Hairspray and Cry-Baby.

Tickets for Birdie, which plays through Jan. 10, are available online at, by phone at (212) 239-6200 or at the box office of the Henry Miller Theatre, on 43rd Street east of Times Square.

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