If you get a chance, send a few dozen get-well cards to Henry Miller’s Theater, the new, handsomely renovated outpost of the Roundabout Theater Company empire. Flu season has arrived, and an especially mean virus appears to have attacked the cast of the revival of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which opened Thursday night.
I don’t think it’s the swine flu that has flattened Robert Longbottom’s production of this popular 1960 musical about rebel rock ’n’ roll versus small-town America wholesomeness. The symptoms in this case include tin ear, loss of comic timing, uncontrollable jitters and a prickly disorientation that screams, “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?” Theatergoers may feel an empathetic urge to rush home and bury their heads in their pillows.
Clearly this is the sort of bug that could jeopardize the health of any red-blooded musical. For the silly, hokey “Bye Bye Birdie,” a show that just wants to have fun and be tuneful, it proves close to fatal. Directed and choreographed by Mr. Longbottom (“Side Show”) — with a cast led by John Stamos, Gina Gershon and Bill Irwin — “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.
Though long a favorite of high school theaters and summer stock, “Bye Bye Birdie” hasn’t been revived on Broadway since its first production, which starred Dick Van Dyke andChita Rivera. (A 1963 film featured Mr. Van Dyke and a sexually overcharged Ann-Margret as its teenage heroine.) Despite a catchy score by Charles Strouse, with blithely jokey lyrics by Lee Adams and a book to match by Michael Stewart, the show seemed square even when it first opened.
Its title character, Conrad Birdie (played here by Nolan Gerard Funk), may have been inspired by Elvis Presley and the clamor surrounding his being drafted into the Army. But the show introduced Birdie and the electrified music he embodied only to renounce them. “Bye Bye Birdie” was always proudly old-fashioned at heart, promising that it was the happy book musical — and not rock ’n’ roll — that was here to stay.
This makes “Birdie” a particular challenge for those hoping to sell it to New York theatergoers who have since embraced “Hair,” “Rent,” “Spring Awakening” and even “Billy Elliot.” Send up “Birdie,” and you kill its melodic friendliness; play it straight, and it just looks quaint.
Mr. Longbottom — who did admirably by “Side Show,” the daring and difficult 1997 musical about Siamese twins — has lost his sense of direction in trying to chart a path between those extremes. Designed by Andrew Jackness (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting), the show’s shiny pastel (and willfully synthetic) appearance may be meant to capitalize on the currency of the hypnotically slick “Mad Men,” the multi-award-winning television series set in the same era. (Incidentally, the film version of “Birdie” figures in this season of “Mad Men.” What a hall of mirrors is American nostalgia.)
But the look and attitude of this “Birdie” — which follows the messy public-relations appearance of Conrad in a tidy little town called Sweet Apple, Ohio, just before he goes into the Army — are more evocative of an old Old Navy or Nick at Nite ad, the kind in which visual clichés of the late Eisenhower years were presented in stylistic quotation marks that rechilled yesteryear’s cool. This sensibility is (or was) tasty enough in 30-second spots. But stretched over two hours it does not create a world that actors, trying to create even semi-real characters, can inhabit comfortably.
Consider, for example, that the different families of Sweet Apple are color-coded, dressed in largely identical styles with a different bright hue per clan. Is this a statement on the conformity of the period? Or a means of distinguishing largely interchangeable cast members? Or just campy interior decorating?
Whatever the reasons behind these aesthetic choices, the show also betrays them. Black-and-white photographic projections (by Howard Werner) of frenzied teenagers (like those seen in the Life magazine coverage of the firstBeatles concerts in the United States) offer a jolting contrast to the willfully artificial whimsy onstage. And the show’s leading performers are equally inconsistent in their approaches.
It’s true that many of them present themselves as cartoons, animated by physical slapstick, but they’re all from different comic books. As the mother-smothered Albert Peterson, the showbiz agent who manages Birdie’s career, Mr. Stamos affects an adenoidal speaking voice and a clownish body language (perhaps meant to recall Mr. Van Dyke’s) that make him seem the same age as Conrad’s fans. (Jayne Houdyshell, an immensely likable actress, seems out of her element as Albert’s dragon mom.)
This Albert, pencil-thin and skittish, is no match for his fed-up secretary and girlfriend, Rose Alvarez, played by the luscious Ms. Gershon. Bringing to mind the physical ripeness of Ava Gardner at her peak, Ms. Gershon also seems to share the lack of confidence in her part that Gardner often projected on screen.
Of course it’s unfortunate that Mr. Stamos and Ms. Gershon, who carry the burden of some of the show’s most hummable songs (“Put On a Happy Face,” “An English Teacher,” “Rosie”), tend to slide distractingly off key — not violently, but just enough to make you want to hit your ear.
They have more passable singing voices than Mr. Irwin, a dazzlingly talented big-time mime who in recent years has shifted successfully to serious dramatic parts (including last season’s “Waiting for Godot”). Mr. Irwin plays Harry MacAfee, a Sweet Apple paterfamilias whose daughter, Kim (Allie Trimm), a Conrad Birdie Fan Club member, is selected to be kissed by her idol on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
This means that Mr. Irwin leads Kim and the rest of his family (Dee Hoty as his wife and Jake Evan Schwencke as his son) in the peerless satiric tribute to television worship, “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.” This requires four-part harmony, and with Mr. Irwin participating, the results are not pretty. Perhaps to compensate, Mr. Irwin lapses into his familiar neo-vaudevillian shtick, trying on disconnected funny postures and voices that make you wonder if Dad hasn’t gone psycho. (Watch out, Kim!)
Led by Ms. Trimm’s Kim (more Hannah Montana than Sandra Dee), the chorus of high school students sing shrilly and dance anxiously. Strangely enough, Mr. Funk, who missed several previews because of tonsillitis, seems more at ease onstage than anybody else. Closer to a Back Street Boys alumnus than Elvis, he’s not really right for the part. But he sings on key and appears to be enjoying himself. It’s nice to think that somebody is.
BYE BYE BIRDIE
Book by Michael Stewart; music by Charles Strouse; lyrics by Lee Adams; directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom; music supervisor/vocal and dance arrangements by David Chase; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; sets by Andrew Jackness; costumes by Gregg Barnes; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Acme Sound Partners; projection