This Bird Has Flown

bye-birdieI saw the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of Bye Bye Birdie before the mostly negative reviews were published. Yet even then word was out, via the internet chat boards, that this was a very problematic production. So I found myself wondering as I walked into the newly renovated Henry Miller's Theatre whether this production could possibly be as bad as some of the scathing online comments would indicate. Well, after seeing the revival, I would say that this Birdie is not quite the total misfire that some have portrayed. But unfortunately it was not the winning production it should have been, just a modestly entertaining show. Because of the strength of the material itself, there are some charming moments, but overall it is a revival undermined by major casting and directorial issues. The net effect is that this Birdie never flies.

Bye Bye Birdie, of course, was a hit musical when it opened on Broadway in 1960. Since then, it has become a staple in community theaters and schools, but this production marks its first Broadway revival. The show pokes fun at the Elvis phenomenon, including an Elvis-like rock star as one of the supporting characters, and its score includes some of the first rock 'n' roll songs (along with a number of traditional Broadway melodies) to be heard on the Broadway stage. It was later made into a successful movie starring Dick Van Dyke, who repeated his Broadway role, and Ann-Margaret, among others.

The problems with this production start with the casting. The Roundabout decided to go for performers in the lead roles who have some name value, choosing John Stamos and Gina Gershon to star. Both have performed on Broadway as well as having television or film credentials. I found them both to be wrong for their parts.

Stamos plays the Van Dyke role of Albert, the manager of the young rock star. I had been impressed with Stamos’s work in the hit Roundabout production of Cabaret several years ago, when he was one of the replacements as the MC. His singing, while nothing special, did not bother me as much as it has bothered some people, but I still found him totally miscast. He just does not have the needed charm or persona for the role.

Gershon, playing the role originated by Chita Rivera, fares a bit better. She is a good actress, and her final confrontation with Albert’s overbearing mother, Mae, was effective. Her singing is overly stylized in spots and, at best, adequate, but she never quite takes off with the role.

Then there is Bill Irwin, playing the role famously originated by Paul Lynde back in 1960. Some people will love Irwin’s shtick, some will hate it. While he had a few very funny moments that did succeed, he had a lot more that were totally overdone and out of sorts for this show. Adding in some of his physical movement that we see in his mime work also did not work. Conrad Birdie, the Elvis-like rock star, is played by newcomer Nolan Gerard Funk, best known to the younger audience for his starring role in Nickelodeon’s musical film Spectacular! Funk seemed a bit too young for Birdie; more importantly, he lacks the voice and magnetism for the role. He is not helped by Robert Longbottom’s direction, either. I know Birdie is a totally one-dimensional character with lots of swagger, but I still have no idea what Longbottom was doing with some of Funk’s mannerisms and facial expressions, which were more disconcerting than anything else.

The only professional staging of Birdie that I had seen before was at the City Center’s Encores series, and it registered a lot more than this production. At Encores, I recall being giddy with delight over an often joyous and very funny first act. I also felt that the material held up quite well at Encores, even if that did not seem nearly as much the case this time around.

All that said, this Birdie does have its moments, chiefly because of the underlying strength of the book and score, which even this underwhelming production can not totally destroy. I did like “The Telephone Hour,” and numbers including “One Boy,” “Talk to Me,” and “Rosie” were genuinely charming. “Spanish Rose” was Gershon’s high point, and the “Bye Bye Birdie” finale/curtain call (that song was written for the movie, not for the original Broadway production) was fun and energetic. The Charles Strouse/Lee Adams score still shines, and there are a number of solid laughs throughout the evening, even though I think the laughs in the Enocres production were more frequent and bigger.

The costumes and sets were colorful, trying to present a bright and cheerful (and, obviously, unrealistic and cartoon-like) vision of the late ‘50s. The show cast younger performers as the high school kids – these were actual teens, and I have no problem with that. But overall, a spark is sorely missing, and too many casting and directorial decisions were off target. As a result, instead of the delightful show we got at Encores and the long-awaited, high-quality, full-scale revival we have hoped for, Roundabout has produced a Birdie that, while modestly entertaining and even charming at times, will probably have a lot of younger people scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about fifty years ago, when the show was so fresh and popular, capturing a cultural phenomenon of the time as well as the innocence of a very different era. This Birdie is a missed opportunity and, overall, a disappointment. - James Miller

Bye Bye Birdie is at Henry Miller's Theatre, 124 West 43 St.

Mary Laura Wood & Robert Nichols - Bye Bye Birdie

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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