Warmed-over apple pie and flat soda pop, anyone? That’s the all-American snack being served in less-than-optimum form in “Bye Bye Birdie.” The first Broadway revival of the 1960 musical ought to be a lot more fun. But Robert Longbottom’s miscast, over-designed production rarely musters the energy or effervescence its riot of candy color and teenage hormones might suggest. The show retains its corny charms and a bunch of tuneful songs, which might be enough for undiscerning family audiences; others will struggle to identify much authentic flavor in its aggressive blandness.
The revival got a free plug when “Mad Men” this season featured a story arc fetishizing Ann-Margret’s performance of the title song written for the 1963 movie. So what if A-M, then 22, was more sex kitten than blushing virgin as she scampered up and down an invisible treadmill against a blue screen? The sequence was, and is, a cool jolt of kinetic pop art in an otherwise pedestrian film.
That song has been added as the revival’s closing number, and pop-art influences are all over Andrew Jackness’ suffocating set. But Longbottom has made little effort to refresh the material beyond smirking at it, which makes “Bye Bye Birdie” now seem hokey and tame. Catchy as the score still is, the cute progenitor has been eclipsed by its way sassier 2002 descendant, “Hairspray.”
On one hand, the schizophrenic 1960 show is the conventional bumpy love story of mama’s boy music manager Albert Peterson (John Stamos) and his secretary, Rose (Gina Gershon), who’s getting antsy waiting for him to untie the apron strings and tie the knot. On the other, it’s a tale of teen hysteria and family values under siege, as Albert’s client Conrad Birdie (Nolan Gerard Funk) descends on Sweet Apple, Ohio, to plant a farewell kiss on fan club member Kim MacAfee (Allie Trimm) before the drafted rock star gets packed off to the Army.
Longbottom has cast kids who look like kids in the teen roles, which adds some bounce. But the plotline about the hip-swiveling menace threatening to shred the fabric of conservative small-town life never had any teeth to begin with. They might puff on cigarettes and even talk about an orgy, but there’s no doubt these cartoon teens will be happily back behind their picket fences before long.
Casting Funk, who’s closer to Zac Efron/Jonas Brothers wholesomeness than the original Elvis model, doesn’t do much to amp up the sense of subversive danger. But the performer and his pelvis at least are having a good time, and his infectious rockabilly intro, “Honestly Sincere,” is one of the few numbers cooking on more than a low flame.
The center of the show, however, is the stuttering romance between Albert and Rose. Stamos and Gershon give it their best shot, and both are extremely likable performers, but they have minimal chemistry. Neither sings or dances with much confidence, and the effort shows, giving the musical a feeble heart.
Stamos looks sharp in Gregg Barnes’ nerdy-chic skinny suits, sprinkling his performance with a little Dick Van Dyke, a little Jerry Lewis. But he’s not quite there. Gershon looks sensational in everything but is too naturally sultry to fit the part. Smoldering “Spanish Rose” from the get-go, she seems like she would sooner eat Albert alive than sit around waiting for him to become “An English Teacher” and marry her.
Longbottom doubles as director-choreographer, but the populous production is light on big dance numbers, with only act two’s “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” mobilizing the ensemble to reasonable effect. In “The Telephone Hour,” he tries a variation on the iconic original staging, swapping the Mondrian-like maze of stacked cubes and rectangles for movable booths in eye-popping shades, with garish color-coordinated costumes; the result is busy but lacks precision. Likewise Conrad’s “One Last Kiss” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which sticks with the over-complicated concept of presenting the MacAfees as an American family through history. It’s a mess that pretty much kills a good song.
The director shows a firmer hand in more intimate numbers. Trimm makes sweet work of “How Lovely to Be a Woman” — watching this kid with braces assume the airs of sophisticated womanhood is charming and funny. Also winning is “One Boy,” with Trimm alongside Matt Doyle as her briefly forsaken steady, Hugo.
Though many in the preview crowd lapped up his mugging, Bill Irwin is a miss as Kim’s uptight dad, Harry. Irwin appears to be performing in an unrelated production, layering on Buster Keaton clown tics, rubber-legged Donald O’Connor moves and fussy vocal affectations. Plus, he should never be encouraged to sing in public again. Ever. As Mrs. MacAfee, Dee Hoty is fine, if not required to do much except assume Donna Reed mode.
The show’s bright spot is the invaluable Jayne Houdyshell as Albert’s monstrous mother, an unapologetic bigot and champion of maternal martyrdom. Swooping around in a voluminous matronly fur and fretfully clutching at her handbag or handkerchief, she’s the one person who hits the satirical mark and fully inhabits her comic characterization.