The surprise ratings success of “Gypsy” last Christmastime on CBS with Bette Midler seems to have made the networks rethink the viability of Broadway fare — both plays and musicals — adapted for television, and many projects are in the works. But lightning isn’t likely to strike twice, at least not consecutively. ABC’s exhumation of “Bye Bye Birdie” as a vehicle for “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander and pop singer Chynna Phillips is stolid and at best quaint, an artifact that will have a hard time retaining an audience over the course of three hours — which is a shame, because it takes nearly that long for this reprise to come to life.
An unexpected hit from the spring of 1960, Michael Stewart’s book spliced a conventional musical-comedy love story with the headline-making news of the drafting of Elvis Presley. In “Birdie,” Albert Peterson (Alexander), an unlikely Brill Building manager, panics at the notion that his sole moneymaker, swivel-hipped rocker Conrad Birdie (the first official Elvis impersonator, here played by Marc Kudisch) is about to be fed to the Army.
Albert’s long-suffering g.f., Rosie of the Spanish ancestry (Vanessa Williams, go figure), comes up with a plan: Before a national audience, Conrad will exit singing Albert’s newest song, “One Last Kiss,” and plant said kiss on one Kim MacAfee (Phillips), an adoring fan from Middle America — thus insuring the song’s success, allowing Albert to marry Rosie and make good on his promise to go back to college and become an English teacher.
Standard musical-comedy roadblocks abound: Albert’s smothering mother (Tyne Daly) in one camp; Kim’s prudish father (George Wendt) and scandalized boyfriend, Hugo (Jason Gaffney), in the other.
“Birdie” made stars of Dick Van Dyke and director/choreographer Gower Champion. But it sounded taps for the golden age of the musical and smartly, if unwittingly, fingered the assassin: rock ‘n’ roll. Broadway would soon be replaced by concert venues and recording studios as the main sources of pop music.
The freshman songwriting team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams made Conrad a smarmy lout and gave him two mild rock parodies (“Honestly Sincere” and “One Last Kiss”). The score also boasted several above-average, if thoroughly conventional, Broadway songs, of which the best known (thanks mostly to the 1963 movie with Van Dyke and newcomer Ann-Margret) are Albert’s “Put on a Happy Face” and “Rosie,” Kim and Conrad’s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and the father’s “Kids.”
There’s even an ode to Ed Sullivan, put over with gleeful sanctimony by Paul Lynde onstage and in the film, but here flattened beyond breathing by Wendt, who spends most of the telepic doing a very good imitation of the Rock of Gibraltar.
The show soared on Champion’s infectious mesh of style, exuberance and wit; the signature scene was “The Telephone Hour,” which featured the teens of Sweet Apple on a vertical grid, phones clapped to ears, burning up the lines with the news that Hugo has pinned Kim.
Saks, a Broadway veteran whohas few peers as a comedy director, avoids any echo of Champion’s work. But Saks also hasn’t stamped the show with any discernible style of his own, and “Birdie” demands it. There’s no edge, no irony , no pizzazz. Kim’s first big number, the acutely hokey “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” is blocked like a jeans commercial, while Conrad’s arrival in Sweet Apple plays like a second-rate touring production of “The Music Man.”
Much worse are Ann Reinking’s chaotic dance numbers, right out of the “Fame” school of choreography.
While Alexander is a seasoned and likable stage actor, he’s agile but not lithe, and funny but not charming, all of which Albert must be. Phillips is too old for Kim; she’s charmless, too, and her singing betrays zero personality. In the Kay Medford role of Albert’s mom, Daly (who was her own sensational Mama Rose on Broadway a few seasons back) is a grim, bloated grotesque; she’s painful to watch.
There is a bright spot in all of this, and it’s Williams’ Rosie, a role created by Chita Rivera. Williams, as anyone who saw her as a replacement for Rivera in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” on Broadway can attest, is gorgeous, has a winning soprano and legs that make the Shriners of Sweet Apple gasp for air.
Rosie’s big act-two solo, “Spanish Rose,” wasn’t the high point of the musical — it’s actually in pretty awful taste — but it is unquestionably the high point of this production. Williams is joyous, sexy and vivacious — everything “Bye Bye Birdie” should have been all along.