Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review of "Bye Bye Birdie"

If some television producer was smart they would sign Bill Irwin and Jake Evan Schwencke to a network show. Playing father and son in the uninspired revival of Bye Bye Birdie, the two, Bill Irwin as the befuddled father, Harry MacAfee; and Schwencke as his young, precocious son, Randolph, have what is lacking in the Roundabout Theatre’s production—chemistry. Their shared time on stage is fleeting, but provides a taste of the rebellious energy one would associate with a musical dealing with fan frenzied teenagers.

For those individuals that have never seen a high school or community theater production of Bye Bye Birdie, not to mention the movie version, the premise is loosely based on the hysterics that swirled around Elvis Presley’s military conscription. In the musical, teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie travels to Sweet Apple, Ohio to bestow one last kiss on a fan before he begins his military service.

John Stamos stars as Albert Peterson, Birdie’s cranky, milquetoast manager. Stamos does an adequate job shedding his normal macho image, but lacks the bounce in his step, that airy effervescence to help offset his bland take on the character. Gina Gershon, his long-suffering girlfriend Rose, is an appealing performer with a pleasing voice, but the interaction between the two protagonists is void of any feeling or emotion. Will they get together? Will love triumph? Will I care? No chemistry.

While the adult performers are the marquee attraction, Bye Bye Birdie is, for all intents and purposes, a paean to those teenage years where sexual exploration and rebellion are commonplace in the American household, toned down within 1950’s sensibilities. The teenage leads, Allie Trimm, as sweet-as-pie, Kim MacAfee, and her overwrought boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, played by Matt Doyle, are freshly scrubbed, likeable young actors, but bring too little of this disaffected sentiment to the stage. Chemistry? Nada.

Nolan Gerard Funk, as the recalcitrant rock ‘n roll rebel, Conrad Birdie, should exude a sexually-tinged magnetism, but comes across as a bored, sneering lout with no hypnotic allure whatsoever. Birdie, in some respects, is a manufactured star, kept under tight reins by his handlers, but Funk shows no charisma, just discontent and indifference.

The rest of the primarily young cast performs well, whether singing en masse or dancing through Robert Longbottom’s upbeat, but flavorless choreography. The teenage ensemble hit their marks with seasoned precision, but lack any sort of playful spontaneity. This is evident in the “The Telephone Hour,” the first big production number of the show. The actors seemed more absorbed with their corded props and moveable scenery then in the celebratory nature of the song. Chemistry? AWOL.

The musical begs for more of the comic antics and anarchistic flourishes Bill Irwin injects into the production, but director/choreographer Longbottom settles for competent and satisfactory as opposed to inspired and exhilarating.

One of the few pleasures of the musical is the score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams which includes such gems as “Put On A Happy Face,” “Kids,” “One Last Kiss,” “A Lot of Living’ To Do,” and, my favorite, “Hymn For A Sunday Evening.”

So, from my critique you would think I would be dissuading people from heading to the Henry Miller Theater on West 43rd Street. For grizzled critics, like myself, and habitual theatergoers this would be true. But for younger audiences and families that attend Broadway shows infrequently, this production of Bye Bye Birdie will be captivating and entertaining with just the right amount of Broadway sizzle and sass.