If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
“Birdie” Revival Hatches at Goodspeed
It’s that title character to look for in the snappy revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” currently delighting audiences throughout the summer at the Goodspeed Opera House. With the moves of Elvis Presley and the persona of James Dean, actor Rhett Guter blows the roof off the Goodspeed playing Conrad Birdie, the singer/heartthrob who is about to be drafted into the army much to the sorrow of teenage girls all over the world.
Set in 1961, “Bye Bye Birdie” is lots of innocent fun as imagined by Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics). The musical, which seems to positively revel in its stereotypes, is far from a Broadway classic along the lines of “Gypsy” or “Guys and Dolls”. But the bouncy score and undemanding story go a long way towards making this a crowd-pleaser of the first order. In addition to Birdie, the cast of characters include his manager, Albert (a bland George Merrick), Albert’s long-suffering girlfriend/secretary, Rose (Janet Decal) and his controlling mother (Kristin Zbornik, in need of a muzzle). They add to the plot that finds Rose, determined to marry Albert, dreaming up a contest that has Birdie kiss a teenage girl in Sweet Apple, Ohio before being sent off to war.
At Goodspeed, director Jenn Thompson has played with the script order a bit opening the show with the musical’s popular “Telephone Hour” number which has all of Sweet Apple’s teenagers tying up phone lines gossiping about the new couple in town, Kim MacAfee (Tristen Buettel) and Hugo Peabody (Alex Walton, terrific in a role that usually doesn’t generate much attention). It is Kim who is selected to get that kiss from Birdie which, naturally, puts a strain on her new relationship as well as her home life, where dad (Warren Kelley) and mom (Donna English) find themselves suddenly sharing their living space with the singer.
There are several standout musical numbers in the production beginning with Dacal’s sweetly plaintive rendition of “An English Teacher” as well as the fiery “Spanish Rose” late in the show. Both Kelley and Zbornik, in choice supporting roles, tend to slow down their delivery and hammer jokes that don’t need to be hit that hard. Kelley does nice work, however, singing both “Kids” and “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”, a satirical ode to the glories of the Ed Sullivan Show. Zbornik gets a juicy new song for the musical, “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, which she proceeds to deliver with a sledgehammer. The title tune, sung memorably by Ann-Margret in the 1963 film version, has also been added here to good effect.
Best of all is Mr. Guter, who simply slays the audience with his first act showstopper, “Honestly Sincere” and then tops that performance with the exuberant “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” in the second act, showing the teens of Sweet Apple what they’ve been missing. Guter has star quality that often propels the show to the stratosphere whenever he appears. The musical could use more of him. “Birdie” ends abruptly and rather oddly with a simple ballad, “Rosie”, between Albert and Rose that seems to deflate all the excitement Guter brought to the musical. By that time, however, you’ve had such a good and goofy experience, it barely matters.
“Bye Bye Birdie” has already been extended through September 8 at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.