ByeByeBirdie, Book by Michael Stewart, Lyrics by Lee Adams, Music by Charles Strouse. Directed by Jenn Thompson. Choreographed by Patricia Wilcox. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kristen Buettel (Kim) and Rhett Guter (Conrad Birdie) surrounded by her friends; photo: Diane Sobolewski
"How could any family be / half as fortunate as we?"
Janet Dacal (Rosie) and George Merrick (Albert); photo: Diane Sobolewski
Tweak a perfect book; twist a perfect score; what have you got? this production of "Bye Bye Birdie" currently on stage at the Goodspeed Musicals in the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. But what have you really got? Well, I call it an unqualified hit of a classic Broadway musical that is almost too young to be called a classic. Yet it is.
Originally produced in April, 1960 with Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Kay Medford, Paul Lynde, Susan Watson, Michael J. Pollard and Dick Gautier under the direction of Gower Champion, this fifty-six year old musical feels so peculiarly contemporary. There is an agelessness about teenagers coming to grips with sexuality, with fan pressure on pop stars, about inter-racial relationships soured by an angry, defeated and controlling parent, with parents losing their children to youthful excitements. This show deals with all of these things, but it also gives equal time to the classic combination of traditional Broadway sound and new popular song stylings. There are four wonderful rock and roll songs. There are two lilting ballads. There are classic character numbers galore. Among this collection are hits that we still hear today, songs like "Put On a Happy Face," "Baby, Talk To Me," and "One Boy." There's even a classic comic hit, "Kids," in a very inappropriate but delectable Charleston motif.
There is also the brilliant staging of Jenn Thompson who, in my experience, can do no wrong in directing a stagework. Her comedies have been delectable and her family melodrama/comedies have been moving and now this musical is so easily watchable, with finely developed characters and deftly staged moments. I believe she could actually convert a sow's ear into a silken purse if she was called on to perform such a feat. In the meantime we have this entertaining and period-defining piece of theater available and we should take advantage of the opportunity offered.
As the leading players, Albert Peterson and Rosie Alvarez, Goodspeed offers George Merrick and Janet Dacal. Following in the footprints of Van Dyke and Rivera is no easy task, but these two do stunnng things in this show. Merrick's Albert is less comic and more pathetic than Van Dyke's. Dacal's Rosie doesn't dance to the extremes provided by Rivera, nor does she sing as well, but her playing is honest and charming and relentlessly compelling. Together they are quietly magical befitting the destination Rosie and Albert are determined to reach. You may say "Why?" but you wind up thinking "thank goodness." That's a great way to end a musical evening.
As Albert's hideous mother, a role Kay Medford performed brilliantly in 1960, Kristine Zbornik pulls out all the ethnic stops and puts out on stage a woman who could rival Mama Rose in "Gypsy" if she had more songs, for the honor of chief controlling mom-bitch in the American theater. As memorable as Medford's delivery of horrendous things to say may be, Zbornik makes them new again and gets the laughs she deserves. She has been given a song not included in the original show and she makes it twice as funny as it really is, coloring the images with a voice that could cut glass and then repair it.
Tristen Buettel is a lovely Kim MacAfee, the girl whose dream of "One Boy" is shattered when she is selected to receive "One Last Kiss" from the recently drafted rock singer Conrad Birdie, played here like a Bobby Darrin rather than an Elvis Presley by Rhett Guter whose performance of "Honestly Sincere" rightfully sends the Mayor's wife into constant and recurring tailspins. As Kim's jealous and practically impotent boyfriend, Hugo, Alex Walton is alarmingly charming and almost too good looking for the role. He does make a nicely human opposite to the flamboyant, drunken Birdie.
George Merrick (Albert) and Kristine Zbornik (Mae); photo: Diane Sobolewski
The MacAfee family: Warren Kelley, Donna English, Ben Stone-Zelman, Tristen Buettel; photo: Diane Sobolewski
Kim's family are a wonderful trio of players. Donna English plays her mother, Ben Stone-Zelman plays her brother and Warren Kelley masterfully undertakes the role of her father. They work together perfectly and Kelley's excellent takes and double-takes are great fun and perfect practical ways to bring us closer to Harry MacAfee. He makes his utter devotion to his hero, columnist and TV host Ed Sullivan, so very understandable that his studio antics while on the Ed Sullivan Show are in perfect compliance with his disturbed character.
This is a company that gives us the feeling they've known one another for their entire lives. Thompson has infused that sense of things into her company somehow and the result is a show that literally flies by, it's two hours and fifteen minutes turning into minutes and seconds instead of hours. She is helped a great deal by the work of choreographer Patricia Wilcox who has woven her work into Thompson's work to create an actually seamless excursion through a musical theater piece. At times you really do not know who was in charge.
The set by Tobin Ost works perfectly with lovely transitions from scene to scene. David Toser's 1960's styled costumes are in keeping both with the play and with our current beliefs in how people look, or should look. Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting design is excellent and the sound design by Jay Hilton is one of the best of the year. Daniel Brodie's projections are so very helpful in taking us back in time, setting the stage for what is to come. Michael O'Flaherty's musical direction of an eight-piece band is truly superb.
It has been seven years since I last saw a production of this show and it was nothing like this one. I've actually longed to see a perfect production of this show since the original closed. Now I have. Now it's your turn.
Bye Bye Birdie plays at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, Connecticut through September 8. For information and tickets call the box office at 860-873-8668 or go on line to www.goodspeed.org.