Just Put on a Happy Face

Photo: Joan Marcus

“You gotta be sincere,” sings the Elvisoid cipher Conrad Birdie (Nolan Gerard Funk), eliciting shrieks from his legions of enamored, enameled bobby-socks-bacchants. And that’s the gag, of course: Nothing in Bye Bye Birdie—once again shaking its redoubtable hips on Broadway after a half-century of improbable restraint—is the least bit sincere. It’s as jubilantly vacant as the mid-century America it lampoons, a candy-colored abyss set all a-wiggle by decapitated sex-reflex and an insistent (if Broadway-ized) rock beat. Robert Longbottom’s colorfast, mostly wonderful new production doesn’t pollute this gorgeous void with anything fussily substantive or excessively self-aware. It upholds the cheeky emptiness of Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, and Michael Stewart’s ode to a new and invasive pop culture and the topsy-turvy sensuality it delivered to every American home. Longbottom even resists an overt present-day nod to Birdie’s status as the ultimate high-school musical—although Funk, casually unsanitary and effortlessly hilarious as drafted fifties rock-idol Birdie, is a touch more Zack Efron than the show’s usual Presley-esque standees, as he blows into Sweet Apple, Ohio, for a televised farewell to his quivering fan-mass.

Longbottom, expert reanimator of Flower Drum Song, makes a series of strong, simple choices, and backs them up with verve and precision. He casts actual kids as the “kids”—and we suddenly realize what really was the matter with them, in both of Birdie’s second-rate screen adaptations: They were played, with a creepy wink, by adults. (Sure, va-va-voomstress Ann-Margret was indelibly perky in the 1963 film, but an ingenue barely out of the bud? Uh-uh.) How refreshing to watch an actual adolescent (the winsome, witty Allie Trimm) sing “How Lovely to Be a Woman”—a song that always struck me as not a little icky coming from a grown-up. As for the show’s real grown-ups, Longbottom gives Bill Irwin a long, rubbery leash as dopey fifties dad-monster Mr. Macafee, and brings Act One to a smashing, clowning close. (Just about every production number stops the show: “The Telephone Hour,” now a chipper elegy to a lost era of curly cords and chunky handsets, is a controlled high-energy reaction of supercollided cheese.)

Unfortunately, Act Two squanders a bit of that dazzle. A lot of this is just the script: Nothing really happens in Birdie’s second half. The songs just hang there, and the characters are dragged kicking and screaming to a conclusion that doesn’t even pretend to surprise anyone. The show’s really just a dizzying accretion of energy, attitude, and wit, whirling around the plodding, schematic romance of Albert (John Stamos), Birdie’s mother-smothered talent agent and songwriter, and his long-suffering assistant/lover, Rosie (Gina Gershon), architect of Birdie’s big send-off.

Even in the hands of the world’s electrifying musical-theater performers, these pickled Broadway archetypes—the reluctant almost-husband and his nagging, marriage-minded squeeze—are the show’s weakest link. And Stamos and Gershon, while nimble, confident, and perfectly competent, are not the world’s most electrifying musical-theater performers. It takes a DuPont’s-worth of chemistry to get the Albert and Rosie characters sizzling, and Stamos and Gershon simply lack that critical fizz. Watching them is like waiting for pandas to mate in captivity: They’re both so lovely, surely something has to happen? (Luckily, Jayne Houdyshell, as Albert’s fearsome mother, blows into and walks off with nearly every Albert/Rosie scene.)

Perhaps that’s why Longbottom keeps them in mostly black-and-white costumes, while the youngsters hop about like Jolly Ranchers on a hot griddle: a grayscale so-so-mance is what awaits these kids, after the bright pastels of adolescence have faded. This is, after all, a story that ends with Dionysus exiled and convention restored, never having been seriously threatened in the first place. If, in the end, Albert can barely take his own advice and “put on a happy face,” isn’t that more or less the point? Perhaps. But after a dinner of chocolate malts, it’s not the dessert you were hoping for.

Bye Bye Birdie
At Henry Miller’s Theatre

Just Put on a Happy Face