Goodspeed puts on a happy face with ‘Bye Bye Birdie’
“Bye Bye Birdie,” which opened on Broadway in 1960, is often credited with being the first rock ‘n’ roll musical, and so it’s only fitting that the most striking parts of Goodspeed Musicals’ current revival are all about the rock.
That means the music, sure, but also the euphoria of concerts, the exhilaration of dance and the spirit of youth. All that is conveyed in a few electrifying production numbers in this “Birdie.”
Rhett Guter, who preens and charms as he portrays Elvis-like luminary Conrad Birdie, leads the way in the wonderfully kinetic “Honestly Sincere,” in which Guter performs like a rock star should (and the female characters shriek and swoon appropriately), and on “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” where all the youngsters crow about their desire to live to the fullest.
Now, while those Conrad Birdie tunes do flick with an early-rock swagger, composers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams offer some traditional-musical-comedy stylings in “Birdie’s” other numbers. Both sounds work for the story (book by Michael Stewart), in which Birdie descends on the wholesome town of Sweet Apple, Ohio. The tale was inspired by Elvis Presley’s being drafted into the military. Here, the same happens to Conrad, but his handlers see it as a PR opportunity. They’ll choose one fan to get Conrad’s last kiss before he heads off, and Conrad will release a song titled “One Last Kiss” at the same time.
So, yes, there’s a bit of commentary on music idols and publicity machines, but “Bye Bye Birdie” also explores the generation gap in a plot nestled in the era where the comfy 1950s were morphing into the complex ’60s.
While things have changed since “Birdie” was written, some quaint elements here have echoes in today’s world: the teen hysteria, for instance, over pop-culture superstars. And, in “The Telephone Hour” scene, girls gossip via a party line; nowadays, they do the same, just by text. (One aspect that’s a bit of a jolt in the 21st century: how casually the “Birdie” script treats teens’ smoking and drinking.)
Goodspeed’s show is directed with a sure hand and a nice sense of time and place by Jenn Thompson. She infuses “Birdie,” too, with a fabulous sense of joy.
A key co-conspirator in the joy department is Patricia Wilcox, whose choreography is a pure pleasure to watch. The performers occasionally even dance in the aisles, as the youngsters swivel and shimmy in a decidedly 1960s way.
Wilcox and Thompson are lucky to get to work with a strong score. There’s the irrepressible catchiness of “Put on a Happy Face.” There’s the slink and sass of “Spanish Rose.” There are the hosannas on high in “Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” where the name Ed Sullivan is sung with reverence.
While we’re on the subject of songs, let’s mention the vaudeville-esque “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Kristine Zbornik, who plays Mae, the overbearing, guilt-giving mother of Birdie’s manager, goes to town on the tune, finding every laugh in the amusing lyrics and then some. The number was created for the 1995 TV version of “Birdie,” and it’s a superb addition to this stage production.
We must make note, too, of Mae’s outfit. She’s forever wearing a clear plastic rain hat, old-fashioned eyeglasses fastened to an around-the-neck chain, a thrift-store fur coat tugged over what could pass as a housedress, and dark ankle socks slipped into clompy shoes. Heidi Klum would be appalled — meaning it’s perfection for this battleax of a character. Kudos to David Toser for his costume design.
One aspect of “Birdie” that doesn’t hold up well is the talky, lackluster relationship between Albert (Mae’s son) and Rose, played here by George Merrick and Janet Dacal. Rose is Albert’s long-time secretary and girlfriend. He won’t commit to their romantic relationship the way she wants, influenced, as he is, by his mother and by his own career pursuits. The actors don’t convey the kind of chemistry that might give this relationship some juice.
Merrick (who was on Broadway in “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “South Pacific”) plays the regular Joe who is caught between mother and girlfriend and who is trying to make both of them happy, unsuccessfully. (Mom isn’t fond of Rose for a number of reasons, including the fact that she’s of Spanish heritage.) Merrick gets at Albert’s essence as a nice guy. He’s at his best in the sweet, harmony-drenched “Baby, Talk to Me.”
Dacal (who was on Broadway in “In the Heights” and “Wonderland”) makes for a strong, sprightly Rose. Her version of “Spanish Rose” brims with life.
A few additional quick notes: Tobin Ost’s scenic design serves the story nicely, except for what look like oversized Venetian blinds against the back wall; those overwhelm. The videos screened before each act cleverly bring us back to the early 1960s, with choppy black-and-white home movie and commercial images of Tang and Slinkys; Daniel Brodie handled the projection design. Tristen Buettel makes for an adorable Kim (the 15-year-old who gets Conrad’s one last kiss) who’s all innocence and enthusiasm, and Warren Kelley displays wonderful comic finesse as her flummoxed father.
What: “Bye Bye Birdie”
Where: Goodspeed Opera House, Main Street, East Haddam
When: Through Sept. 8; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed.; 7:30 p.m. Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.; 3 and 8 p.m. Sat.; and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, performances at 2 p.m. some Thursdays and at 6:30 p.m. some Sundays
Tickets: Start at $29
Call: (860) 873-8668