Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Theater Review: Bye Bye Birdie

Efforts to Revive Classic Go Bye, Bye
By Lauren Yarger
Bye Bye Birdie might have been written about young love and teenage worship of a rock-and-roll idol, but Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical is redeemed, if not entirely successfully, by the parents.

Giving the production its best moments are Bill Irwin, as an uptight, Ed-Sullivan-revering father with repressed dreams of being a star and Jayne Houdyshell as an overbearing, guilt-trip-laying mother who tries to squelch the romantic pursuits of her son.

The production, which boasts familiar tunes like “Put on a Happy Face,” “One Boy,” “Kids,” and even “Bye Bye Birdie,” which wasn’t part of the original score, but which was an add-on song for the 1963 movie starring Dick Van Dyke (reprising his stage role as Albert Peterson), is mediocre at best.

In this revival, woefully underdirected by Robert Longbottom, John Stamos (of TV’s “General Hospital” and “Full House” fame) takes on the role of Peterson, manager of a teen rock idol named Conrad Birdie (Noland Gerard Funk), who, à la Elvis Presley, has been drafted into military service. Stamos is likable -- after all, who doesn’t like Uncle Jessie (his persona on "Full House") – but he’s no Dick Van Dyke and his attempts at clowning are forced.

Before Birdie leaves for training, Peterson and his assistant Rose Alvarez (a horrifically miscast Gina Gershon) cook up a publicity stunt: one last kiss with Kim MacAfee (Allie Trimm), the president of Birdie’s fan club in Sweet Apple, Ohio.

Albert promises the matrimony-seeking Rose that after the stunt, he’ll quit the business, pursue his dream of being an English teacher and stand up to his intruding and manipulating mother, Mae (Houdyshell), who doesn’t approve of Rose because she’s “Spanish” and older than Albert. Gershon, first, does not seem to be Latina, though the character apparently is supposed to be according to other dialogue in the book by Michael Stewart. Second, thanks to wig and makeup (David Brian Brown; Angellina Avallone, designers), she looks much older than Stamos, so Mae’s age-related comments, though well delivered by the talented Houdyshell, fall flat and sound mean rather than facetious.

Kim’s parents (played by Irwin and Dee Hoty) and her new steady boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Matt Doyle) aren’t excited about the planned kiss, but Dad comes around when he learns that the whole family will join Birdie on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Indeed, the MacAfees’ costumed portrayal of historical families seeing their loved ones off to various wars throughout the ages while Birdie croons are some of the show’s funniest, thanks to some slapstick from Irwin as MacAfee embarrasses himself while trying to upstage his daughter.

The humor turns to unease, however, as Irwin goes too far, almost making it look like the father is suffering from some sort of mental illness. It’s a case of a talented actor trying too hard to save a flat-lining show. He just keeps pounding on the chest long after the heart has beat its last.

Will Kim and Hugo get back together? Will Albert and Rose overcome Mae’s opposition and find happiness? Is there really any mystery about the answers to these questions?

The dated and weak story plays out against psychedelic-colored backdrops (Andrew Jackness, set designer), with sliding panels in sickly pastels and shapes with video projections (Howard Werner) and are more reminiscent of the 1960s than the ‘50s in which the piece is set. The costumes (Gregg Barnes, design) pick up the color theme and even group families in their own hue groups. Longbottom, who also choreographs, moves the cast around a bit, but fails to ignite any action, especially since the tempo for most of the songs (David Holcenberg, music director) is slower than we’re used to hearing them played.

Trimm and Doyle have some nice moments and are in good voice (I had enjoyed Trimm’s performance in the musical 13 which was a much more interesting teen-focused musical). Brynn Williams, who plays Kim’s friend, Ursula, has a bubbly presence and nice singing voice too. In fact, Ursula appears as the product of an interracial couple during the number where the families appear color coded, which struck me as unlikely normal for 1958 Sweet Apple Ohio. The thought that this might be the product of Longbottom trying to update the piece with 2009 sensibilities disappeared, however, when Willliams proved to be the only African-American in the otherwise squeaky white cast (and I didn’t spot the actor who plays the African-American dad in the cast photos, so go figure. Maybe the nauseating color scheme played havoc with my eyes and they weren’t an interracial couple after all).

The other vocals, across the board, are adequate to weak, with songs being transposed for Gershon’s lower range. Funk is no Elvis impersonator and seems rather bored. So Birdie joins a growing list of Broadways revivals that just don’t have what it takes to recapture the magic that propelled them from the Great White Way to high school auditoriums around the nation.

Birdie runs through April 25 at the newly renovated Henry Miller Theater, 124 West 43rd St., NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200. For discounted group tickets that benefit Masterwork Productions, click here.

Christians might also like to know:
• Scantily clad actors
• The Shriner’s Ballet, often portrayed as a rather racy number, is omitted in this production.

1 comment:

Roger said...

That's what I love about Cirque du Soleil - they always have something fresh, new, and - yes - different. I will be going for sure.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

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All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

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I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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