Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 15, 2009
Bye Bye Birdie Book by Michael Stewart. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Lee Adams. Directed and Choreographed by Robert Longbottom. Set design by Andrew Jackness. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Acme Sound. Cast: John Stamos, Gina Gershon, Bill Irwin, with Jayne Houdyshell, Dee Hoty, Matt Doyle, Jake Evan Schwencke, Allie Trimm, Nolan Gerard Funk.
Director Robert Longbottom’s production of the classic 1960 musical comedy by Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Lee Adams (lyrics) is bland where it should be bubbly, trying where it should be tuneful, forced where it should be fun, and bearing a cast led as if to a firing squad by the grossly miscast John Stamos and Gina Gershon. Like Roundabout's deadly 2006 revival of The Pajama Game, which bore most of the same hallmarks, this show has become what it’s never been before: an almost total loss.
On a strictly material level, it still delights because of its painstaking craft, good-old common sense, and its timeless theme about the struggles of parents and children to understand and respect each other. If the vehicle for this is perhaps a bit dated, it’s only in the specifics. Albert Peterson (Stamos) and his longtime assistant-girlfriend Rose Alvarez (Gershon)’s big publicity stunt of having their client, the Elvis Presley-like superstar Conrad Birdie, kiss one of his biggest fans goodbye on the Ed Sullivan Show before he joins the military, would be pretty tame today. But young girls, like the kissing contest’s winner, Kim McAfee (Allie Trimm, who was in 13 on Broadway last season) of Sweet Apple, Ohio, going nuts for a hot male singer, while her boyfriend, Hugo (Matt Doyle), fumes, and her parents (Bill Irwin and Dee Hoty) don’t understand the fuss? That’s eternal.
As is the subplot, of Albert trying to escape the shadow of his domineering mother, Mae (Jayne Houdyshell), who’s an equal partner in his managerial business. She’s a fussy busybody who maintains her control with an ever-slinging trebuchet of guilt trips, who hates Rose for the crime of being Spanish (she’s actually from Allentown, Pennsylvania, but never mind), and who doesn’t understand that Albert grew up a long time ago. Of course his quest to free himself of her, for Rose, mirrors the actual kids’ literal growing up, just as it would in any thoughtfully, artfully written musical.
This story doesn’t need the help anyone involved here is so intent on giving it. The stereotypical sets (Andrew Jackness), costumes (Gregg Barnes), and lights (Ken Billington) all look as if Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In exploded all over them; Jonathan Tunick's new orchestrations are thin compared to Robert Ginzler’s originals, but are his usual typically classy cut-downs. Longbottom, whose previous Broadway work has ranged from the handsome (Side Show) to the middling (Flower Drum Song), has choreographed with a decent amount of soda-shop fizz, most energetically when Conrad shows the Sweet Apple teens a good time in “Honestly Sincere” in the first act and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” in the second. But his scenes sputter as if drowning in a whirlpool, weighed down by either bad ideas (the usually intimate “Put on a Happy Face,” bloated with six personality-free chorus girls) or no ideas (the essentially unstaged Sullivan anthem, “A Hymn for a Sunday Evening”), but always the fervent insistence that the actors who should behave like human beings don’t.
No one else is as bad, but hardly anyone is good. The closest is Trimm, whose sunniness and sparklingly fresh voice are a firm match for Kim. The role is not a major challenge, but it is central, and her songs (including the lightly parodic “How Lovely to Be a Woman” and the gold-liquidy teenage-commitment plea “One Boy”) are among the show’s loveliest - Trimm lives up to them well enough. Hoty tries her hardest to make Mrs. McAfee warm and winning, but has too many scenes opposite Irwin for that to be legitimately possible. Both Doyle and Jake Evan Schwencke, who plays Kim’s little brother Randolph, overplay their roles significantly, but not quite damagingly.
Houdyshell isn’t intricately manipulative enough for Mae - she was a revelation as Lisa Kron’s mother in Well, but her role there was of a passive annoyance, not an active life-sucker. She’s too human here to be as horrible as she must - exactly the opposite problem of almost everyone else. The billed Conrad is Nolan Gerard Funk, from the Nickelodeon musical Spectacular!, but he was out with tonsillitis at the performance I attended - his understudy, Robert Hager, was a fine dancer, but a wooden actor and an indifferent vocalist given to bellowing his songs rather than singing them. (Funk has since returned to the production.)
Despite the super-thick glasses and inwardly hunched shoulders he wears throughout, Stamos comes across as nothing more than a typical good-looking star “playing” a “nerd,” quotation marks and all. He is utterly charmless and unbelievable as a welcome-mat milquetoast Mae could just steamroll over, a role that launched Dick Van Dyke to stardom the first time around. Stamos, who’s replaced bigger stage stars in shows like Cabaret and Nine, sings Albert’s songs well enough, but always sounds conspicuously reedy and needy, not at all like someone who’s actually in control of his life but doesn’t quite realize it yet.
Gershon, in the role Chita Rivera created, is a statuesque beauty who’s about as warm and yielding here as a hunk of marble. She played Sally Bowles in Cabaret and a saucy stewardess in Boeing-Boeing, but you’d never know it from here total lack of vivacity and spirit. She hits all her musical notes, but proffers no sense of who Rose is or who she wants her to be and provides no hint of a threat to Mae. The character’s “Spanish Rose,” a usually entertaining Latin litany of clichés, is so lifeless one wonders whether Gershon thought it was an 11-o’clock number for the AM rather than the PM.
Not that Gershon has many chances to shine. Rose’s two big dance-comedy showcases, “How to Kill a Man” and “The Shriner’s Ballet,” have both been cut, depriving Gershon of most chances to endear herself to the audience (and remind them she's still around during most of the second act). Gershon even publically denounced the latter number as being too “gang-rape-y,” something it’s oddly never been for 50 years of gifted dancers and comediennes playing Rose in community, college, and school mountings; even Karen Ziemba did it at Encores! in 2004. Perhaps it’s just as well. With this Bye Bye Birdie, Longbottom seems determined to prove that more is less, which with a show this good is a violation of a different kind.