When Conrad Birdie sings "You've got to be sincere" to his adoring fans, he's not being sincere. The Elvis Presley-esque heartthrob is swiveling his hips and curling his lip in a cool, calculating, decidedly phony and inevitably funny manner.
But Rhett Guter, who plays Birdie in the new production of "Bye Bye Birdie" at the Goodspeed Opera House, through Sept. 4, says that despite these classic moments of rock-star satire, director Jenn Thompson is "rooting the characters in honesty, asking what these people really want."
"I really admire what Jenn's doing with this play," Guter continues, in a phone interview earlier this month. "She's really honoring the original intent and style, and the music is wonderful. But it also has this solid foundation. It's a real honest journey."
That journey begins with the announcement that Conrad Birdie has been drafted into the Army (just as Presley had been in 1957). The news has his fans in a tizzy, and also affects the lives of those who manage his career: Albert Peterson (played at Goodspeed by George Merrick) and his fiancee, Rosie Alvarez (played by Janet Dacal). A publicity stunt is concocted: A typical American teenage girl will be chosen to receive "one last kiss" from the rocker, broadcast live on "The Ed Sullivan Show." This in turn affects the anxious family, and the jealous boyfriend, of the kissee — sweet young Kim McAffee (Tristen Buettel).
Thompson, in a phone interview last month, describes "Bye Bye Birdie" as "the last gasp of innocence before the [expletive] hit the fan in the 1960s." She played the role of Kim herself when her family used to run the River Rep summer series at Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex. As a director, she hasn't yet done many musicals.
This year, she directed the adoption drama "The Call" at TheaterWorks, but she is best known for play revivals, including acclaimed Off-Broadway productions of Hazel Ellis' "Women Without Men," Beth Henley's "Abundance," Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," Sidney Howard's "The Late Christopher Bean" and Tennessee Williams' "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale."
"I treat revivals like new plays," Thompson says. "I can bring a lot to the table: my family background, my history as an actor, what I trafficked in as an actor as well."
Thompson has been able to access several different eras of her lifelong career in the theater for "Bye Bye Birdie." A former River Rep colleague, Warren Kelley, will play Kim's father — the role originated by Paul Lynde on Broadway — at Goodspeed. Guter, who first played Birdie when he was in high school, worked with Thompson on a production of "Peter and the Starcatcher"; she was intrigued by the idea of casting a trained dancer as this rock icon. But the longest relationship Thompson has had with anyone connected to the show is with "Bye Bye Birdie" composer Charles Strouse. In her child-actor days, Thompson was in the original Broadway production of "Annie."
"'I'm an 'Annie' kid," the director says proudly. "I have a long association with him. I also toured in his revue 'By Strouse.'"
Strouse Rates 'Birdie' Productions
The legendary Strouse himself, in a sit-down chat at the Gelston House restaurant next door to the Goodspeed, insists that "Bye Bye Birdie" has "always been an active show." The composer is happy to see it done at Goodspeed, where "Annie" had its world premiere and where he's workshopped other projects.
Like many fans of the stage show, Strouse wasn't a fan of the film version, bemoaning some ridiculous changes to the plot and the miscasting of Ann-Margret as Kim. ("She was very sweet," he says, "but all wrong for the part.") He describes the agonizing process he and lyricist Lee Adams went through when told to create a new song for the movie based on the show's title — a title the creators never liked in the first place. ("We fought with the producers on that title. We wanted to call it 'One Last Kiss.'") The song turned out fine, and is now routinely done as part of the stage show.
Strouse speaks more highly of the national touring revival of "Bye Bye Birdie" starring Tommy Tune, which played New Haven's Shubert in 1992, though he questions Tune's decision to break the fourth wall and declare to the audience "It's 1961" when an outdated, sexist remark was uttered.
Thompson's Goodspeed production appears to be more grounded — as grounded as any production of "Bye Bye Birdie" can be, given that it features fans who faint at the twitch of an eyebrow, a family singing a hymn deifying variety show host Ed Sullivan and several of the most manic, squealing youth-driven ensemble numbers in the history of American musical theater, including "The Telephone Hour."
We're talking about old-school dial phones with long cords here, LOL. But the director and the guy playing the title character for Goodspeed's "Bye Bye Birdie" have no hesitation describing the show as relatable and timeless.
As for Charles Strouse, when asked if he was a genuine fan of the early rock 'n' roll he so deftly parodied for this groundbreaking musical, admits that "the rock and roller was Lee's idea." Then he adds, with a twinkle in his eye, "but I was the only one in our group who could imitate Elvis Presley."
And the 88-year-old composer begins to gyrate. Sincerely.
"BYE BYE BIRDIE" is at the Goodspeed Opera House, 4 Main St. in East Haddam, from Friday, June 24, through Sept. 8. Performances are Sunday at 2 and 6:30 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $34 to $84. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org.