On Stage: “Bye Bye, Birdie”

Last week I had a chance to attend a preview performance of the latest revival of Bye Bye, Birdie.  The benefit of preview performances is that it gives the cast and crew ample time to tweak the show in front of an audience before the curtain goes up on its official opening.  Unfortunately, the only thing that’s going to improve this production of Birdie is for the curtain to stay down permanently.

I wasn’t expecting much to start, as I feel that Birdie is about as in need of a Broadway revival as…well, I would say Finian’s Rainbow, but that’s coming back to Broadway shortly.  In my opinion, Birdie is a show with a threadbare plot, approximately three good songs, and bland, broad, boring characters.  It’s also about as culturally relevant as the fast-approaching Finian.  The show gets revived purely for the nostalgia factor.  Considering that women in their 50s made up three-quarters of the audience I saw the show with, the Roundabout Theater Company is counting on just that.

Still, even with my practically nonexistent expectations, I was utterly disappointed by this production.  Middling performances, bizarre design choices, and a surprisingly weak orchestra are the hallmarks of this Birdie.  It’s completely forgettable, while simultaneously being unforgettable in one respect.  This production of Bye Bye, Birdie marked the first time that I have ever seen a Broadway musical in which not one of the performers could actually sing.

Read that sentence again.  I know, it’s an outrageous claim, but I mean it.  No one in this musical could sing.  I don’t know how they managed it, but kudos to director/choreographer Robert Longbottom and casting director Jim Carnahan for achieving the unthinkable.

John Stamos is the headliner of this production (which should say something), starring as nebbishy talent agent Albert Peterson.  It’s not that his performance is bad; it’s just that it’s on a small-screen scale.  If this had been the ABC Movie of the Week of Bye Bye, Birdie, he’d probably get nice reviews; but on stage at the Henry Miller Theater, nothing he does goes beyond the tenth row of the orchestra.  (The other quarter of the audience I saw the show with were girls my age or younger, clutching Full House DVDs for Stamos to sign at the stage door.  So, I guess you can keep counting your money, Roundabout)

Gina Gershon plays his secretary and love interest, Rose Alvarez, a role originated on Broadway by dancing diva Chita Rivera.  Gershon tried valiantly to make the character her own, but somewhere towards the end of the first act, she decided that wasn’t worth it and turned instead to a bad Chita impression. It didn’t sustain Gershon or the audience.

"Do you think if I did some 'Thriller' they'd wake up?"
"Do you think if I did some 'Thriller' they'd wake up?"

Allie Trimm plays eager, independent Kim McAfee, and is really nothing special.  She had no charisma and was, in my mind, a little too young for the role.  Yes, Kim is supposed to be sixteen, but when she sings about how wonderful it is to be becoming a woman, it would help if she looked a little more, well, womanly.

Kim spends the whole show pining for, enjoying, and subsequently fleeing the advances of the show’s title character, Conrad Birdie.  The hypersexual rock and roll star is played here by Nolan Gerard Funk, who hasn’t one ounce of star power in his vocals and has the sex appeal of a can of condensed milk.  Funk, who couldn’t have a more appropriate last name, seemed thoroughly bored on stage, and he succeeded in transferring his emotions to the audience.

Even this production photo radiates malaise
Even this production photo radiates malaise

Yet Funk was not the worst performance in Birdie.  That distinction goes to Bill Irwin, who plays Kim’s father.  Now, Bill Irwin is a talented, respected, and award-winning theater actor.  What he’s doing in this show is anyone’s guess.  He’s not just on another page; he is on another world.  His random, ridiculous vocal inflections and rigid, limiting physicality aside, he plays Kim’s father as an implacable, immovable tyrant.  He’s not a playfully out-of-touch elder; he’s a joyless, unpleasant, and belligerent autocrat.  I half expected to have Act II open with Mrs. McAfee carefully applying eyeshadow over her latest black eye.

The only laudable performance in the show comes from Matt Doyle as the straight-laced Hugo Peabody, who wants nothing more than to go steady with his sweetheart Kim and live out the obsolete high school courtship fantasy that comes with.  Hugo’s the only normal one in this flock of loons, and Doyle plays him with all the simple charm, warmth, energy, and respect that the rest of the cast seems to have never given second thought to abandoning.  I just wish he had more to do.  Dee Hoty and Jayne Houdishell are fine as two very different mothers (Mrs. McAfee and Mrs. Peterson, respectively) but their roles are so featureless (Mrs. McAfee) or arch (Mrs. Peterson) that these two talented ladies don’t get to show off much of their real chops.

The minimalist set made no sense, as the few pieces brought on (Kim’s bedroom, for example) rarely filled the space.  The costumes looked as if they had been designed by the first American housewife to drop acid.  Particularly bizarre were the Sunday bests worn by the women of Sweet Apple, Ohio upon Conrad’s arrival.  They didn’t look so much like they were gathering for a major town event, but more so for a Technicolor Oktoberfest.

Bottom line: Don’t waste your time or spending money.  Not even for the half-price booth.  The only tweets coming out of this Birdie are those of disgruntled audience members.

~ T

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