Goodspeed's "Bye Bye Birdie": Puberty in Prime Time

The Cast of "Bye Bye Birdie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

In 1976, Charles Strouse was busily engaged in the creation of an improbable musical based on a comic strip about a little orphan and a dog. It was premiered at Goodspeed Opera House, with Book by Michael Stewart, Music by Strouse, and Lyrics by Lee Adams; it was to go on to win the next season's Tony Award as Best Musical. The show was in development for years before it finally saw the light of day at Goodspeed in its world premiere, and required a good deal of revision before it was ready for its ultimate opening on Broadway. That show, of course, was Annie. Seventeen years prior to that, when most of the creative team and cast were unknowns, Broadway had enjoyed this team's first musical, also a Best Musical Tony winner; this one scored as a long-running tenant on Broadway, a film version (more about this later), a televised 1995 adaptation, and countless high school productions over the years. Despite its title, Bye Bye Birdie has never really left us.

Set in 1961, the show bisects the real life event of Elvis Presley's induction into the Army.  As anyone who has seen one or more of those endlessly-produced high school versions of the show can attest, it's the sweet story of Albert Peterson (George Merrick), talent agent and songwriter who once had a dream of becoming an English teacher, his secretary/girlfriend Rosie (Janet Dacal), and the prospect of their biggest rock and roll star, Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter) being drafted. They concoct a publicity stunt in which Conrad would bestow “One Last Kiss” on a lucky member of his fan club live on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. By lottery, Kim MacAffee (Tristen Buettel) of Sweet Apple, Ohio (somewhere between Pittsburgh and Dayton) wins the dubious honor, which prompts one of the cleverest ensemble numbers ever performed, the gossipy “Telephone Hour” (which uses its lyrics to reference the original title proposed for the show, Let's Go Steady), one of theatre's greatest opening numbers (though the show was originally written with a scene between Albert and Rosie that lacked the high energy of this eventual opener). Kim's boyfriend Hugo (Alex Walton) is decidedly unthrilled, especially when Birdie moves in with the MacAfees. Kim's father Harry (Warren Kelley) shares Hugo's lack of enthusiasm, until he learns the whole family is to appear on the televised smootch; this inspires a number with Mrs. MacAfee (Donna English) and their eleven-year-old son Randolph (Ben Stone-Zelman), the serio-comical “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”. Albert tries to comfort the fan club members, notably Kim's best friend Ursula (Dorcas Leung), in “Put on a Happy Face” (the eventual title of composer Strouse's memoir). When Kim runs away, her family sings the hysterical “Kids” number, as Albert's mother Mae (Kristine Zbornik) arrives with tap dancer Gloria Rasputin (Lauren Fijol) to entice him away from Rosie, who's off to a local dive run by Maude (Branch Woodman). Meanwhile Birdie tries to convince his fans that it isn't the end of the world as we know it in the song “Got a Lot of Livin' to Do”. Loose threads get tied up when Birdie leaves town (on the train with Mae aboard), Kim and Hugo reunite, and Albert learns of a job teaching English in Pumpkin Falls, Iowa, requiring that the teacher be married. This finale is somewhat low key, but all that precedes it was truly exciting on a level rarely seen these days. A favorite scene, the hysterically funny dance Rosie performs with a group of Shriners is among the missing.

Some of the jokes are dated, even jaded, but most land wonderfully given this expert cast. As is often the case with Goodspeed, everyone on stage is so amazingly good that it's impossible to single anyone out, though Kelley shines in “Kids”, with a line of dialogue adlibbed by the original actor in the role, Paul Lynde, “Ed (Sullivan), I love you!”. Zbornik excels in her solo, and Dacal is a true Spanish spitfire, as anyone who saw her in In the Heights can attest.  Obviously Stewart, Adams and Strouse, tongues firmly in cheeks, had a lot of fun satirizing this typical town and its people in the sixties, and the whole rock-and-roll revolution. Oddly enough, the show had no title song until the film version with Ann-Margret, who at twenty-two was a way-too-voluptuous Kim, especially in wide-screen format. Goodspeed has incorporated that title song, and reinstated another, “A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore” written for the televised version. The original Broadway show garnered four Tony Awards out of eight nominations, thanks to its lovingly and unabashedly corny plotting, terrific score, and the signature approach by its original director, Gower Champion. The 1981 sequel, Bring Back Birdie, was a flop, lasting just four performances. (This just a couple of years after this critic was told by Stewart that he'd sworn off writing for musicals). But Strouse, at 88 years old, has never stopped composing. In 2002 Boston's Huntington Theatre Company presented his musical Marty and in 2005 Providence's Trinity Rep mounted his semi-autobiographical Dancing with Time, and he (with Adams, and others) has several new works in various stages of development.

As usual, Goodspeed spins yet another miracle, a high-spirited romp with Direction by Jenn Thompson (who keenly respects the original material but has a lot of fun with it) and original Choreography by Patricia Wilcox. The Scenic Design by Tobin Ost uses venetian blinds to manage quick set changes cleverly, and the Costume Design by David Toser, Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg and Sound Design by Jay Hilton are all up to the company's very high standards. The expert Music Direction is by Michael O'Flaherty in his twenty-fifth year with Goodspeed. Special attention must be paid to the extraordinarily terrific projections before each act, with television highlights from the period, including Ed Sullivan himself, as well as a brief nod to Maureen Stapleton, who played Mae in the film version.

It's no wonder this show has been extended until September 8th. And it wouldn't be surprising to find this lively production had a future life. To quote Sullivan, “folks, this is a really big shew”.

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