A Bumbling 'Bye Bye Birdie' Doesn't Fly On B'way

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Alas, Broadway's new "Birdie" doesn't take flight.

We're talking about the bumbling Roundabout Theatre Company revival of "Bye Bye Birdie," the first attraction at the reborn Henry Miller's Theatre. At least the new theater, with its gently sloping orchestra section, has great sight lines.

But the earthbound production, which opened Thursday, misfires, most notably in its casting of the genial, mildly satiric 1960s musical. For the few who have never seen the show or the 1963 Ann-Margret dominated movie version, it's the tale of Conrad Birdie, a young rock 'n' roll star, his induction into the Army (think Elvis Presley) and the effect of his departure on a small Ohio town.

In Michael Stewart's still surprisingly funny book, Conrad is to plant a kiss on 15-year-old Kim MacAfee, the local president of the Conrad Birdie fan club, a buss that will be televised nationally on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom and his design team have given "Birdie" a bright lollipop sheen, with colorful sets and costumes that suggest a square, middle-class America dipped in DayGlo paint. If only some of the performers were as theatrical.

Which brings us to the show's leads. Even though Conrad is the title character, the story focuses on his manager, Albert, played by John Stamos, and Albert's long-suffering, love-struck secretary, Rosie, portrayed by Gina Gershon. If you have the original 1960 cast recording featuring Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera ingrained on the brain, you'll squirm a bit during their moments on stage.

Stamos gives a bland, low-key performance, one that lacks the nerdish comic charm Albert should possess. What is more important, the actor doesn't have the singing and dancing chops to pull off the delightful Charles Strouse-Lee Adams score, which is studded with such songs as "Put on a Happy Face" and "Baby, Talk to Me."

Gershon fares better, injecting a bit of hard-edged personality and a more than passable singing voice into her so-called Spanish Rose. Her ethnic background is a source of constant slurring by Albert's aggrieved gorgon of a mother, played by Jayne Houdyshell. In today's more politically correct age, it seems vaguely embarrassing.

If Stamos seems to disappear into the production, other performers, such as Houdyshell, make their presence known with a comic aggressiveness that diminishes rather than increases the laughter.

Bill Irwin, for example, is an accomplished clown with an innate sense of comic physical timing. But his portrait of Harry MacAfee, Kim's father, surely will stand out as one of the oddest performances of the season. It's so full of relentless twists and twitches that you fear for his spinal cord. And his vocal mannerisms are truly outlandish, seeming to change register in mid-sentence. Weird.

The younger folk improve matters. Allie Trimm is a sweet, vulnerable Kim. Nolan Gerard Funk may not look much like Elvis; he's more a precursor to the Backstreet Boys, but he sings well and swivels his hips with just the right amount of lewdness.

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 cell phones _ 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 theater.

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