"Bye Bye Birdie?" More like bipolar!
In Jenn Thompson's thoughtfully throbbing staging of this American classic, "Bye Bye Birdie" is not just a fun story about the hijinks that ensue when a randy rock star invades a small Midwestern town. It's a generational argument about whether one should settle down or rock out.
"Birdie," which sings through Sept. 8 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, switches from calm scenes about quiet living and meaningful relationships to bursts of big-city hustle-bustle and wild, rock-fueled rampages. Respect for a stable lifestyle wins out, both in the show's tranquil stroll of a finale (the love song "Rosie") and in this impressively mannered production. It has much more in common with "The Music Man" than with "The Buddy Holly Story."
Care has been taken to make the teenage characters look like teenagers, not like waifish twenty-something fashion models. Even more importantly, for those of us who've seen many high school productions of "Bye Bye Birdie" but precious few professional ones, the adults look and act like adults. Somewhere in between is the rock star Conrad Birdie. As played by the riveting, feral Rhett Guter, this Birdie is as bemused by the suburban bliss of Sweet Apple, Ohio, as its denizens are by his hip-swaying histrionics.
The central romance of Conrad's head songwriter and hapless handler/manager Albert Peterson (played with everyman aplomb by George Merrick) and Albert's secretary/fiancé Rosie (played with straightforward sensuousness by Janet Dacal of "In the Heights" fame) veers from dreams of domestic tranquillity ("An English Teacher") to poppy pick-me-ups ("Put on a Happy Face") to anger anthems ("What Did I Ever See in Him?") to make-up songs ("Rosie"). The erratic relationship adds to the emotional push-pull of the whole musical.
Some of the material in this 1960 Broadway hit, the first to explore that decade's historic "generation gap," has not aged well. My own 14-year-old daughter and her friends would be unamused, and even offended, by the central joke of the song "How Lovely to Be a Woman" — in which the 15-year-old heroine Kim sings of femininity and maturity while dressing up in the presumably tomboyish attire of baseball jersey and blue jeans.
"Bye Bye Birdie" is overstuffed with such old-world gender roles: the incommunicative, domineering dad (Warren Kelley), the perky apron-wearing Mom (Goodspeed veteran Donna English, from "My Paris" and "On the Twentieth Century"), and — look out Henny Youngman — the overbearing mother-in-law (Kristine Zbornik). The imperious Mae Peterson doesn't just dislike Rosie because she wants to marry her sainted "Sonnyboy" Albert, she dislikes her because she is of Spanish heritage.
These are stereotypes, obviously, played for laughs, but simply not as amusing as they were 50 years ago. Some of the one-liners ("She looks like Margo when they took her out of Shangri-La"), in fact, should come with annotations, though the performers (particularly the sour-pussed Kelley and the cantankerous Zbornik) zing them ably anyway, with exquisite delivery.
What is consistently amusing are the timeless caricatures of teenagers as giddy, gyrating, head-bobbing bundles of puberty. "Bye Bye Birdie" is studded with splashy production numbers that spill off the stage. "The Telephone Hour" is actually one of the less lively of these. The show-stopper is the multi-part ensemble-dance odyssey of "I've Got a Lot of Livin' to Do," but Conrad also brings down the house — heck, decimates an entire town — with his earth-shakin' rendition of "Honestly Sincere" in Act One.
Tobin Ost's set design, with an oversized venetian-blind backdrop, makes the small-town atmosphere unmissable. Telephones — good old-fashioned sturdy landline ones, with the bright colors and long cords — provide a solid motif. Phones figure heavily not just in the hallowed opening number "The Telephone Hour" but in the love song "Baby, Talk to Me," and several major plot points.
"Bye Bye Birdie" knows how to rock, old-style. Music Director Michael O'Flaherty pushes the reed section and percussion into go-go lounge-music territory. This is a balanced "Birdie" that takes time to stop and smell the apple blossoms, making its "bye bye" much sweeter.
"BYE BYE BIRDIE" continues at the Goodspeed Opera House, 4 Main St. in East Haddam, 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.