“It’s BIRDIE like you’ve never seen it before!”
So goes the advertising copy for the new production of BYE BYE BIRDIE at the Goodspeed Opera House.
Now – would this line turn out to be just a Say-Anything-to-Get-Them-In slogan, as I’d suspected, or would this production actually be a revisal of the Stewart-Strouse-and-Adams 1960-61 Tony-winner?
Surprisingly enough, the latter. Michael Stewart still gets the sole book credit, but because the press materials state that director Jenn Thompson had a “new take,” we may infer that she’s made the many changes in structure and book.
So the curtain rises on “The Telephone Hour,” which has the Sweet Apple teens discuss the Big News that Kim McAfee and Hugo Peabody are going steady. Repositioning what has always been the second song as the opener does honor the great Broadway musical tradition of starting right off with a dynamite production number. Originally, the story began with a book scene in Almaelou, the firm where Albert Peterson writes songs for Conrad Birdie, the biggest superstar in rock ‘n’ roll (as rock was known then).
With Conrad off to serve in the Army for two years, Albert will lose a fortune. His secretary-lover Rosie Alvarez doesn’t think that fate would be so bad; he could always revert to being “An English Teacher.”
The 1963 movie was smarter in making Albert a struggling songwriter who’s desperate to write for Birdie. For who’d believe that Albert would trade writing hit records sung by the country’s top-selling singer for teaching high school and getting, as 1958 statistics show, $7,122 a year?
Yes, 1958, not 1960, where the original was set. Thompson wanted to keep matters as close in time to the real-live event that inspired the show: Elvis Presley’s “Greetings!” from Uncle Sam. (Considering all we’ve since learned about “The King’s” penchant for underage girls, one teen’s moaning “We’ll be too old for him when he gets out!” now rings all too true.)
When Rosie tells Albert to pick out a card from the “two million members of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club” to see who’ll give Birdie “One Last Kiss” on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, she offers him one of only two boxes each about a foot long. Too bad that set designer Tobin Ost, who’s kept things amiable simple, didn’t have the budget to offer a library’s worth of card catalogues.
Kim’s the winner, of course, and the Goodspeed audience, replete with men and women who were her age when BYE BYE BIRDIE opened, understood her ardor. They’d hero-worshipped Presley, the Beatles and perhaps even Sinatra, so they now laughed in recognition at kids writhing with paroxysms over their new hero. They chuckled, too, when Hugo’s overwrought romantic concerns reminded them of their own first loves. Now that enough time had passed to wise them up, they gladly returned to yesteryear when their mothers begged them to get off the phone and when Going Steady seemed as sacrosanct as marriage.
Thompson’s best changes? Rosie sings “One Guy” instead of “One Boy.” True, Albert is written as a man-child, but considering that Rosie doesn’t address that issue in song, she should refer to Albert as an adult.
As for “Put on a Happy Face,” this version wisely follows the 1963 film’s lead in having Albert sing it to Rosie, who’s still frustrated of Albert’s not popping the question during the eight long years they’ve been together. (Wouldn’t you love to see Miss Adelaide make a guest appearance in BIRDIE and say “Eight years! That’s nothin’! Try fourteen!”)
Gower Champion’s original concept for “Put on a Happy Face” had Albert sing it to an arbitrary Birdie fan who was glum at losing her hero to the Army. She didn’t come out of her funk until Albert accidentally banged into a wall, and that got to her put out a happy laugh.
The Albert-Rosie conflict is far more germane to the story, so his attempt to win her over with it makes the song work better. Thompson does retain the sight gag of Albert injuring himself, turning Rosie into the one who laughs.
The new liabilities? As in Stewart’s original, Albert enters out of the blue and offer the McAfees the chance to appear on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. In the film, this happens only because Albert and Rosie overhears Mr. McAfee threaten to prevent Kim from appearing with Birdie – and Rosie smartly offers a spot on the legendary prime-time TV show to mollify McAfee.
The movie has their paean to Ed Sullivan as a dream sequence of sorts, as the whole family is dressed in choir robes, all to underline the sanctity of the moment. Thompson doesn’t do that, but inexplicably brings on the rest of the cast in similar robes. Why?
Mae, Albert’s mother, is the over protective type. After she gives him a litany of demands and advice capped by “Wear your rubbers,” Thompson has Kristine Zbornik start to exit but pauses as if a thought has just occurred to her. Is it reading too much into this pause by assuming that Mae has suddenly thought that Albert might assume she means condoms?
Mae does everything she can to keep Albert from marrying Rosie because she’s Spanish. Such prejudice, thank the Lord, no longer flies in any art form, and Thompson does her best to keep it to a bare minimum. However, she’s retained Mae’s gambit to get Albert away from Rosie by introducing him to the va-va-va-voom Gloria Rasputin. The screenwriter was smart to drop this character, for if Mae sanctions a union with Gloria, that baldly means that she doesn’t want him to marry that Spanish woman but would accept a different daughter-in-law. Having Mae not want ANY woman for her son so he can remain close to her is a far better option.
Of course, the main reason for introducing Gloria is to make Rosie so jealous that she spurs Hugo into punching Birdie into unconsciousness on national TV. Again, the movie succeeds here by just having it be Hugo’s idea. Much better.
(Lest you think this a hagiography of the film, I, like you, think the biochemist gambit and the sped-up ballet were utterly ridiculous and an insult to everyone’s intelligence.)
McAfee is aghast that Birdie is out with this daughter, but given the tough times in which we now live, he should not demand of his wife “Go get my gun.” That the weapon is soon revealed as an air-rifle doesn’t take away the horror we felt seconds earlier when McAfee seemed primed to shoot to kill.
And yet, that may not be the script’s worst new moment, which is one of the worst-ever in musicals. Mae has been treating Albert as a child all show long, but he shouldn’t say “Mama, I don’t need you anymore,” for that’s unnecessarily cruel. Saying you don’t NEED a mother implies that the main reason to have her around is to have her help you. The reason should be that you appreciate and love your mother for all she’s done for you. A better solution would be to have Mae wangle for sympathy by pseudo-bravely saying “You don’t need me anymore” followed by Albert’s even-tempered replying, “It’s not that, Mama; it’s just that I love Rosie and I want to marry her.” What he says now makes us hate him.
At least Albert and Mae reconcile a little before the show ends, followed by Albert’s telling Rosie that he’s taken a job teaching high school English in Pumpkin Falls, Iowa. Rosie is thrilled – but in reality, would she be? Would that Albert ASK Rosie if she’d like him to take the job and how she’d feel about giving up Manhattan for small-town life. His making the decision for both of them strikes a sour note. True, it may well be in keeping with the period where women did adopt a brave wither-thou-goest attitude, but we’d like Albert so much more if he shared the decision with his wife-to-be.
Thompson makes no effort to correct one big flaw that’s plagued BIRDIE for the past fifty-six years: why is a star of Conrad’s magnitude – not to mention Rosie and Albert – staying at the McAfee home? Birdie by now would expect to be placed in the best suite of a swank hotel while Albert and Rosie would at least take residence in a nearby motel. An easy explanation would be that Sweet Apple is so small that it has no inns of any kind, but that fact needs to be mentioned to explain why the McAfees must take in three boarders.
Everyone in the Thompson’s cast is good, although no one’s great (and the sound-system Ed Sullivan impersonator is terrible). As Kim, Tristen Buettel looks much too old for sixteen, but perhaps this is an homage to Ann-Margret, who was also in her twenties when she did the film. At least Thompson asked Buettel to play naiveté and not the non-stop sultry sexiness that the former Miss Olsson displayed.
Thompson has kept matters lean and unmean, and makes the 2:15 running time speed by. Costume designer David Toser has Kim wear a Reds T-shirt, leading us to believe that Sweet Apple is closer to Cincinnati than to Cleveland.
Choreographer Patricia Wilcox does a superb job with “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” in which Birdie becomes a veritable pied piper of local youth. (Some of Kim’s movie lyrics – but none of Hugo’s – are included.) Otherwise, there’s precious little in the way of production numbers. Given that the movie’s delicious title tune has been inserted into the score and sung by all the Sweet Apple lasses, it should have erupted into a major event, but Wilcox and Thompson have made it a mere throwaway without any true dancing.
Also added was “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” Mae’s complaint that was added to the 1995 TV-movie. Zbornik got the biggest hand of the night from the audience members who have since suffered from their own teens.
Too bad that Thompson does not bring on the Sweet Apple kids to sing a second chorus of “Rosie,” the show’s final number, as was done to charming advantage in 1981.
What production was that, you’re asking, furrowing your forehead while trying to remember. Well, “Rosie” did return much of the cast to the stage – in BRING BACK BIRDIE, the hit’s four-performance sequel.
Oh, there was p-l-e-n-t-y wrong with that one, but having the young men and women endorsing the happily married-to-be adults was endearing. And while we might have hoped that Thompson would bring back the BRING BACK BIRDIE finale, we can fully understand if she has no knowledge of that BIRDIE at all.