Bye Bye Birdie
by David A. Rosenberg
They didn’t name it “Bye Bye Birdie” for nothing. At Goodspeed, the latest revival of the teen favorite is especially endearing when Rhett Guter, as rock ‘n’ roll heartthrob Conrad Birdie, appears. Doing a sly yet affectionate take-off on the likes of Elvis Presley, Guter thrusts his hips, pumps his arms and gleefully lets us in on the joke in this jazzy, tuneful, funny production.
From his first “pow” entrance to his swoon-inducing “Honestly Sincere” to his sensational “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” Guter is magnetic, drawing the ensemble to him. As choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, “Livin’” is a mini-show by itself, with purpose and build that makes it less a dance interlude and more an integral part of plot development.
Premiering in 1960, and running 607 performances, “Birdie” won Tonys for Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Dick Van Dyke) and director / choreographer Gower Champion, whose staging of the show’s “The Telephone Hour” is a classic. The musical launched the careers of librettist Michael Stewart, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams. (“Put on a Happy Face” was a breakout hit.)
In some ways, “Birdie” was a mirror image of “West Side Story,” which had opened three years earlier. At Goodspeed, choreographer Wilcox pays homage to that show in some of her formations, such as the coming-at-you and rivalry groupings. The contrast is explicit: “Birdie” is as sunny a comedy as “Story” is a dark tragedy, with teens out for fun not murder.
The fun starts at once. Rock star Conrad Birdie has been drafted. (The time is 1961.) Before joining up, he’s part of a publicity stunt devised by his manager, Albert Peterson. On the Ed Sullivan show he’s to kiss a fan, one Kim MacAfee from the remote, fictional town of Sweet Apple, Ohio.
Traveling to that burg, Albert and girlfriend Rose (whom he keeps promising to marry if only he can ditch his smothering mother), encounter resistance, mainly from Kim’s parents and her boyfriend, Hugo. Complications ensue. But, of course, it all works out happily, leading to a startlingly original finale between Albert and Rose, after a muddled last exit by Conrad.
Under Jenn Thompson’s bouncy direction, action spills over into the theater’s aisles, as if the stage can’t contain all the exuberance. Janet Dacal’s Rose is a spitfire when singing or dancing, though descending to shrill in dialogue scenes. George Merrick is a low-key, sweet-natured Albert, while Tristen Buettel is a lively Kim, as are Dorcas Leung as leader of the Birdie fanclub and Alex Walton as the ingratiating Hugo. (Walton really nails a heretofore minor role.)
Warren Kelley is a dyspeptic Mr. MacAfee although his song, “Kids,” has been broken into three parts to become a trio with him, Donna English as his wife and Ben Stone-Zelman as his 11-year-old son. (It’s cause for backstage mayhem.) Kristine Zbornik is a caricature as Albert’s kvetching mother, Mae. Her rendition of “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is, like her rainhat, overdone and unfunny.
The production is eye-catching, from Tobin Ost’s set to Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting and David Toser’s period costumes. Michael O’Flaherty’s music direction and his excellent orchestra are impeccable, as always.
No one ever claimed “Bye Bye Birdie” a work of art. But its insouciance is beguiling and, in this production, it rings the bell with Rhett Guter.