Friday, October 16, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

GRADE: D

Book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. At Henry Miller's Theater. (CLOSED)

Oy. Vey. When F is the most commonly occurring grade in your show's data set, you've got a problem. The newly renovated Henry Miller's Theater gets the most consistently positive reviews in this roundup of critical reaction to the Roundabout's Bye Bye Birdie. Only lavishly praised by John "Contrarian" Simon, the show is, if critics are to be believed, a nearly unmitigated disaster. What's left is an argument over what fares worse: the design, the choreography, or the leads, alternatively described as "tone deaf" and "tin eared." Biggest surprise: The level of affection many critics seem to have for the original source material. Who knew your high school drama teacher's tastes were reflected among New York's reviewerati? UPDATE: Best review prize goes to Michael Feingold.



Bloomberg A-
(John Simon) Still fresh at nearly 50, the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie rebounds on Broadway remarkably well as a takeoff on Elvis, rock and roll, and high-school hijinks, a triumph of lovable silliness. It also spoofs the shenanigans of show-business. This is a show both for the kid with you and the kid within you...Still, the revival has, for Albert, the elastic John Stamos, a worthy successor to Dick Van Dyke; for Rose, a somewhat less terpsichorean but spirited actress and singer, Gina Gershon. Lesser-known Nolan Gerard Funk is a serviceable Conrad, Dee Hoty a genial Doris, and assorted kids and parents a game and well-sung chorus. Jayne Houdyshell steals scenes serendipitously as the son- eating Mae, and Matt Doyle couldn’t be more comically zealous as Kim’s jealous steady Hugo. Allie Tripp is correct as Kim, but sadly lacking in charm; as bedeviled father Harry, Bill Irwin, less actor and singer than mime, hams horrendously, for which director Robert Longbottom must share the blame.

CurtainUp B
(Simon Saltzman) To call the revival of Bye Bye Birdie hopelessly cute and relentlessly wholesome may sound like faint praise, but it is exactly that. Aside for one unfortunate bit of casting, the Roundabout Theater Company revival of the 1960 musical is a modestly diverting family-friendly entertainment. This new incarnation, as breezily directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, inevitably suffers when seen in the shadow of the original production helmed by director choreographer Gower Champion. Nevertheless, this satiric and decidedly unsophisticated musical will undoubtedly bring smiles to audiences who remember the original and even more to the many who have appeared in the countless high school and amateur productions over the past half-century. Whether there is enough edge to Michael Stewart's aggressively silly book to satisfy demanding audiences looking for more bite for their bucks is questionable.

North Jersey B-
(Robert Feldberg) If the show’s older-generation stars had the same musical-theater chops as its youngsters, it could have been a total treat. As it is, Longbottom makes a mostly fun evening out of the tale of an Elvis-like rock idol about to enter the Army and the teenage girls who won’t let him go without a swoon... Longbottom’s plan for a swift and sparkling evening – the candy-colored outfits designed by Gregg Barnes are eye-catchers – is, unfortunately, sabotaged by his leads: John Stamos, who plays Albert, Birdie’s manager and songwriter; and Gina Gershon, portraying Rosie, Albert’s assistant.

Entertainment Weekly C+
(Tanner Stransky) Birdie is a weak, flawed show blessed with a few catchy, nostalgic tunes. The latest revival — bringing the '60s tuner back to Broadway for the first time in nearly 50 years — doesn't transcend the show's nature. This Birdie is still weak, cheesy, and trite. But even so, it's fun.

The New Yorker C-
(John Lahr) What’s startling about this production of Bye Bye Birdie is not how much the times and the styles have changed since 1960—that’s blood under the bridge—but how much the skill set for musicals has declined as the number of shows staged has decreased. The actors here are bright, but they don’t know how to shine. Something ingenious and luxuriant—a certain sparkle and frivolity—has gone out of the culture and out of them. The actors involved in the on-again, off-again adult romance, for instance—John Stamos as Albert Peterson, Conrad’s manager, and Gina Gershon as his Latina secretary, Rose Alvarez—have no whiff of humor about them and therefore no amperage. (Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera originated the roles.) In the absence of idiosyncrasy or chemistry, Stamos and Gershon have only Charles Strouse’s fetching melodies and Lee Adams’s cute lyrics to lift them up over the footlights. They make it work; they just don’t make it memorable.

Wall St. Journal D+
(Terry Teachout) Vast amounts of money and energy have been poured into this production, for the most part to winning effect. Robert Longbottom's brisk staging and clever choreography flow together seamlessly. The quick-change space-age sets, designed by Andrew Jackness, look as though they'd been swiped from the warehouse of a late-'60s TV variety show. Jonathan Tunick's new orchestrations evoke Nelson Riddle and Count Basie with smoothly swinging exactitude. The costumes are colorful, the chorus fabulous, the pit band hip. So what's the catch? Just this: Only one of the stars can sing...not to put too fine a point on it, the Roundabout's revival of "Bye Bye Birdie" is the worst-sung musical I've ever seen on Broadway. If that prospect doesn't faze you, or if you're tone-deaf, then go with my blessing: Mr. Longbottom is an immensely gifted director-choreographer, and there's plenty to like about this production. I only wish it had been overdubbed.

TheaterMania D+
(Barbara and Scott Siegel) Once you get past the show's two stars, the casting quality picks up a great deal. Longbottom's decision to use genuine teenagers for the show's ensemble is a good one, since they are quite endearing as a group. Trimm, who possesses a lovely singing voice, is perfect for the role of Kim, as she comically teeters on the precipice of womanhood. On the adult side, Jayne Houdyshell gives a strong comic performance as Mae, Albert's smothering mother. Stealing the show, however, is Bill Irwin as Kim's stern but confused father, Harry. Simply put, his work is an inspired clown's creation. That said, any production of Birdie which is mostly memorable for its Harry has plenty of problems -- and this one definitely does.

Variety D
(David Rooney) Robert Longbottom's miscast, over-designed production rarely musters the energy or effervescence its riot of candy color and teenage hormones might suggest. The show retains its corny charms and a bunch of tuneful songs, which might be enough for undiscerning family audiences; others will struggle to identify much authentic flavor in its aggressive blandness.

NYPost D-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Under director-choreographer Robert Longbottom, this "Birdie" has been completely drained of fun and energy. The Roundabout would have been better off recycling the spirited Encores! production from 2004... Only Jayne Houdyshell, as Albert's overbearing mother, knows how to act cartoonish and stay in character. Everybody else fumbles. As Kim's dad, Bill Irwin looks as if he'd been teleported from another show -- or planet Loony Tunes. Stamos and Gershon sure look great. Then they open their mouths.

AP D-
(Michael Kuchwara) The show's brief moments of exuberance are provided by its young ensemble of dancers, who truly look as if they are teenagers. The show threatens to lift off into genuine musical-comedy entertainment during two of their dance numbers: "The Telephone Hour," in which the local teens discuss by phone - real phones, not cellphones - Kim's love life, and later in the musical when Conrad and the kids defiantly sing they have "A Lot of Livin' to Do." By today's standards, their rebellion isn't much. But a half-century ago, "Birdie" seemed awash in gentle, slightly subversive charm, that both parents and their children could relate to. Plus it exuded a genuine likability, a cheerfulness kept aloft by a buoyant score. That charm - and a sense of fun - are missing in action on the stage of Broadway's newest theatre.

Lighting And Sound America D
(David Barbour) There are a few satisfying things. As Albert's mother, Jayne Houdyshell creates an amusing gorgon right out of a Mad Magazine cartoon; her work is confident, funny, and right on target. Allie Trimm is charming as Kim, the 15-year-old fan selected to give Conrad the big kiss-off, although her number, "How Lovely to Be a Woman," has been stripped of the comic business that makes it so amusing. Nolan Gerard Funk is a fairly ideal Birdie; when he launches into "A Lot of Livin' to Do," you sigh in relief, because at last somebody knows how to sell a number. (The staging suddenly snaps to life -- largely, I think, because Longbottom is more at home in darker, stranger musicals like Side Show and in "Livin'" he has a long, complicated choreographic sequence to work with.) Also, Ken Billington's lighting casts a bright Technicolor palette over everything, and Acme Sound Design has provided one of the most natural-sounding reinforcement jobs I have encountered in many seasons; you can't really see the mics on the actors, either. But there's no question that this is a sad, sad affair, rather like trying to parse a great Russian novel through a middling translation. The saddest thought, to me, came on the way home: Is Encores at City Center the only viable venue for a show like this?

NY Daily News F+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) With the newly restored Henry Miller's Theatre, the Roundabout has another Broadway house under its wing. But with the launch of the venue's inaugural production, a bumbling, badly cast version of Bye Bye Birdie, it also has egg on its face. Director/choreographer Robert Longbottom (Side Show, Flower Drum Song) has staged the sweet, hit-filled 1960 classic like an exaggerated comic book. In the process, many of the charms have been smothered and characters emerge as plastic as the scenery.

Newsday F
(Linda Winer) Given a production with charm, inventiveness, first-rate casting and belief in the material (I'd take any two of the four), it is very possible that this fondly remembered musical fluff-ball would triumph over its dated references and borderline-offensive bigotry...Alas, the Roundabout Theatre Company's production, directed and choreographed like a bus-and-truck tour by Robert Longbottom, manages to be both frantic and stillborn. John Stamos, as Albert, the show-biz manager and mama's boy, is just pleasantly lightweight in a dance-driven role created by Dick Van Dyke onstage and in the 1963 movie. The painfully miscast Gina Gershon croons into approximate notes, posing more than dancing as a crude sexpot of a Rose, his longtime secretary/ girlfriend.

NYTimes F
(Ben Brantley) Flu season has arrived, and an especially mean virus appears to have attacked the cast of the revival of “Bye Bye Birdie,” which opened Thursday night.member, is selected to be kissed by her idol on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I don’t think it’s the swine flu that has flattened Robert Longbottom’s production of this popular 1960 musical about rebel rock ’n’ roll versus small-town America wholesomeness. The symptoms in this case include tin ear, loss of comic timing, uncontrollable jitters and a prickly disorientation that screams, “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?” Theatergoers may feel an empathetic urge to rush home and bury their heads in their pillows. Clearly this is the sort of bug that could jeopardize the health of any red-blooded musical. For the silly, hokey “Bye Bye Birdie,” a show that just wants to have fun and be tuneful, it proves close to fatal.

TalkinBroadway F
(Matthew Murray) The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new revival of Bye Bye Birdie has one, and only one, good reason for seeing it: the place it’s playing. The new Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street is a smart-looking, highly attractive, subterranean complex that looks like it could elegantly house any musical or large-scale play. It’s even reportedly one of the “greenest” theaters in New York, which points to a rigorous and respectful attention to detail on the part of Roundabout and the people who designed and built it. Would that that same care went into the show that’s christening the new space. Director Robert Longbottom’s production of the classic 1960 musical comedy by Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Lee Adams (lyrics) is bland where it should be bubbly, trying where it should be tuneful, forced where it should be fun, and bearing a cast led as if to a firing squad by the grossly miscast John Stamos and Gina Gershon. Like Roundabout's deadly 2006 revival of The Pajama Game, which bore most of the same hallmarks, this show has become what it’s never been before: an almost total loss.

Show Business Weekly F
(Frank Scheck) Unfortunately, director-choreographer Robert Longbottom's staging conveys little of the show's charms. The musical numbers are lackluster at best, with even the sure-fire "Telephone Hour," featuring a plethora of plexiglass panels and sliding phone booths, failing to make much of an impact. The performances by nearly all of the principals are a major problem. As Conrad Birdie's harried manager Albert, John Stamos is genial but bland, prosaic at best with his singing and dancing. Gina Gershon, as Albert's romantically frustrated secretary Rose, is similarly uninspired, seeming comfortable only when finally given the opportunity to don a slinky outfit and do some serious vamping. The normally reliable Bill Irwin, in the father role essayed so memorably by Paul Lynde, seems to be in another show, applying broad clowning techniques that are completely out of sync with the performances surrounding him.

Backstage F
(Erik Haagensen) Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom's production seems calculated to decimate the material. Number after number implodes, whether due to clueless direction, fussy and unfocused choreography, or incompetent singing and dancing. Joke after joke dies on the vine. Longbottom appears not to understand that "Birdie" is a satire. It needs to be played within quotation marks. Its roots are in American vaudeville and the sketch comedy that book writer Michael Stewart and songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams perfected creating Catskill revues. The outrageous one-liners and comically quick emotional reversals cannot be played naturalistically. When they are, as happens here (with one glaring exception), they die.

Time Out New York F
(Adam Feldman) Bye Bye Birdie; hello, turkey. The featherbrained revival of this 1960 musical is sure to be roasted in so many critical pans that it seems almost cruel to add to the fire. But we can’t duck our call to grouse about a show that has been cast and staged with such flighty ineptitude. Vultures have circled this production for weeks, for good reason: What should be a lark feels joyless and blah, burdened with the albatross of leaden leading players.

Village Voice F
(Michael Feingold) What Ashley and his cast do to bring the best out of Memphis is exactly what director Robert Longbottom and his cast fail to do, even with the advantage of far superior material, in Bye Bye Birdie, another in the sorry list of the Roundabout's successful attempts to turn formerly delightful old musicals into embarrassing contemporary disasters. The company achieves this distressing goal with such consistency, no matter who is directing the show, that the blame has to be laid on the management's whole system of production planning. This is a matter of public concern, since, with the advent of the ecologically sound but unwelcoming new auditorium behind the restored fa├žade of the old Henry Miller's Theatre, the Roundabout—a nonprofit institution that charges Broadway prices and pays its actors on a regional-theater (LORT) contract—now controls the programming at three Broadway houses...Aside from Jayne Houdyshell, who performs a character not innately suited to her with comic skill and sympathy, everyone and everything else in Bye Bye Birdie is merely bland or insufficient; Irwin, probably the most gifted artist involved, is the production's deathblow. Go figure.

BB A- 12; CU B 10; NJ B- 9; EW C+ 8; TNY C- 6; WSJ D+ 5; TM D+ 5; V D 4; LSA D 4; NYP D- 3; AP D- 3; NYDN F+ 2; NYT F 1; TB F 1; TONY F 1; SBW F 1; BS F 1; VV F 1; TOTAL: 77/18=4.28 (D)

7 comments:

Linda said...

I expected the reviews to be harsh on Bill Irwin, but I have to say, I kind of liked his performance. Even though he seemed out of place, at least he was entertaining, which is more than I can say for the rest of the cast.

Anonymous said...

I saw this show in previews. It was awful. Most of the blame lies with the director/choreographer who did not have a clue what he was doing. I felt sorry for the cast. Most of them should never have been hired for this piece...such miscasting us also the fault of the director. Who hired him???!!!! Why was he not fired????!!!!!

JakeBraith said...

Yeah, I can't say I didn't expect this. This show can be tremendously funny, but this show simply lacks that bite. Why cast Gina Gershon when the women of In the Heights are such clear Chita Rivera heirs (as Karen Olivo showed last season)? Poor direction is surely the cause of this terrible misstep.

Hopefully other musical revivals (Little Night Music, Ragtime, La Cage) are worthy efforts later this season.

Anonymous said...

Casting by Jim Carnahan. What an f'ing JOKE!

Robert McAndrew said...

I saw the show on the second day of previews and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The young cast was full of energy, and were clearly having a blast. Matt Doyle was perfect as Hugo, and Bill Irwin's praftfalls added the right touch of levity.

Since the original was staged before I was born, I cannot compare the revival to the original. But unless this show changed an awful lot before opening night, I think the critics are being way too hard on this remarkably talented cast.

Anonymous said...

The miscasting was only the first of many flaws. I found John Stamos and Gina Gershon nearly intolerable. As one reviewer noted, they are both out of their league vocally and are not Broadway material.
Bill Irwin did go a little overboard but I agree that it was like a drink of water in a drought. The costumes were positively hideous. I'm sticking with the film.

Broadway Bob said...

To put it plainly, Bill Irwin humiliates himself in this show and that's just a beginning...