Watching a production of “Bye Bye Birdie” is a bit like tuning in to Antiques Roadshow. You're curious what the 52-year old Lee Adams/Charles Strouse musical might be worth. There are no missing parts but the veneer is faded and the plot is decidedly quaint. So what's its value?
Compared to other musicals of its era, “Birdie” scores more points than “Bells Are Ringing” and “Mr. President” but is outclassed by the hardier “Gypsy” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” One could say “Birdie” falls in the largest group of a bell curve.
Lyric Theatre opened its 50th season with “Birdie,” the tale of a pop singer (inspired by Elvis Presley) who has been drafted into the Army. As a publicity stunt, he will bestow a kiss on one member of his rabid teen fan club before reporting for military duty.
Directed and choreographed by Lyn Cramer, Lyric's third outing with “Birdie” has been given a new look. Gone are the Hollywood Squares-inspired cubes that have long been the setting for the giddy “Telephone Hour.” Adam Koch's attractive set design conjures images of “Mad Men” for the show's New York scenes, and “Pleasantville” for the Sweet Apple, Ohio setting.
Age hasn't been especially kind to the characters in Michael Stewart's book. There's a harried father who's frustrated by his daughter's desire to be all grown up, a spineless promoter who won't stand up to his mother, and the singer whose every sneer and pelvic thrust recall Elvis.
That's not to say that the cast members portraying these roles aren't capable. They're just stuck with stock characters who could populate a dozen different musicals. And while the show's dialogue was topical when “Birdie” premiered in 1960, how many people today are familiar with Arpege, Postum and Sammy Kaye?
Fortunately, Lyric's cast has its share of scene stealers, beginning with Charlotte Franklin as Mae Peterson, the put-upon, woe-is-me mother who still keeps a tight rein on her 33-year old son Albert. Franklin's best attributes are her range of marvelous facial expressions and line deliveries that make every punch line land.
Mandy Jiran is delightfully daft as Doris MacAfee, a homemaker who looks as if she just stepped out of a 1950's-era sitcom. Barb Schoenhofer plays both the mayor's wife and the voluptuous typist Gloria, the former scoring laughs as she falls under Birdie's spell, and the latter, silently counting her not-so-smooth dance steps that end hysterically in an awkward display of the splits.
Paul Lynde is never lurking far behind Monte Riegel Wheeler's take on Harry MacAfee, the crazed father who leads the cast in the delightful “Kids” and then attempts to worm his way into every scene when the family appears on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Meredith Tyler's Kim MacAfee and Elliot Mattox's Hugo Peabody are more problematic. Tyler easily conveys her character's desire to be grown up but her costuming and hair style separate her too much from her giddy peers. It's also too much of stretch to believe that Kim would fall for Hugo, portrayed here by a miscast Mattox who's never fully convincing as a heartthrob.
Eric Ulloa oozes confidence as the smarmy title character who reduces the town's population of teenage girls to blithering idiots. And while most of his stage time is spent recreating the poses and gyrations of Elvis, Ulloa's “A Lot of Livin' to Do” is well sung and delightful to watch.
David Elder has the right look and stage presence for Albert Peterson, a man caught between his meddling mother and Rose Alvarez, the object of his affections. Elder leads a group of Birdie's swooning girls in the familiar “Put On a Happy Face,” a number that was slow to engage the audience but ultimately succeeded when the tap dancing kicked it into high gear.
The production's standout performance belongs to the petite Kat Nejat, whose take on Rose strikes a nice balance between the frustrated secretary and a sexy Latina who proves the notion that good things do indeed come in small packages.
Nejat's character takes the greatest journey in “Birdie,” from wishful thinking in “An English Teacher” to the reprise of “One Boy” in which she pines for the neglectful Albert. Later, the fed-up Rose questions her romantic feelings in “What Did I Ever See in Him?” but holds nothing back in the joyous “Shriners' Ballet.”
Laughter swept through the audience when she crashed a meeting of the staid men's group. Her shenanigans, some visible, others hidden by a white cloth that draped the conference table, became increasingly hilarious as Nejat's Rose worked her wiles to seduce every Shriner present.
David Andrews Rogers kept the production moving at a fine pace, a confident conductor whose steady hand was invaluable in a musical score that is more complex than it sounds. The hard-working ensemble covered roles ranging from high-spirited teenagers to church choir members. There were a few lighting mishaps but those minor inconsistencies will undoubtedly be corrected.
If “Bye Bye Birdie” has lost some of its luster after more than a half century of mediocre productions, it reminds us that its most durable quality is its tuneful score. Strouse was a master musical theater craftsman who always managed to find an interesting hook for his songs.
Count yourself a true musical theater devotee if you knew that he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the noted French pedagogue who taught Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston and other classical music notables. Catch “Birdie” before its says “Bye Bye” on Saturday.
— Rick Rogers