Seen on Broadway: It’s damning a show with faint praise to say that it’s somewhat better than its bad reviews, but the first-ever Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie (1960) is somewhat better than its bad reviews. On the plus side is an enthusiastic performance by Nickelodeon star Nolan Gerard Funk as teenybopper sensation Conrad Birdie, whose imminent, Elvis-like drafting motors the plot, and a supporting cast of actual teenagers to fall over him. The energy level at the newly refurbished Henry Miller’s Theatre rises whenever they’re around, so much so that newcomers to the would-be bouncy confection will wonder why composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams, and book writer Michael Stewart didn’t concentrate on them. The original production made stars of grown-ups Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera, as Birdie’s manager and lovelorn secretary, and Paul Lynde. John Stamos and Gina Gershon are as charismatic as a replacement cast that’s gone into a show deep into its run, when the tourists will accept anyone in the leads, and Bill Irwin is simply bizarre bringing his Irwin-isms to the part of a frustrated small-town dad whose daughter is swept up in Birdiemania. Veteran Jayne Houdyshell steals the show from the over-18s as Stamos’ grasping mother, but the keys were left in the ignition for her to do so.
To compensate for his low-wattage leads, director and choreographer Robert Longbottom clearly encouraged the design team to think in red-hot Technicolor. Andrew Jackness’ set is a batch of Plexiglas panels and sliding boxes that transforms into any number of environments, including a train station, a movie theater made over for a telecast, and a plethora of booths for the classic “Telephone Hour” number. It’s a busy solution, not unimaginative but not all that stimulating, either, even when overlaid with Howard Werner’s pop projections. Gregg Barnes’ costumes, in comparison, needed tamping down—the families in Sweet Apple, Ohio, where the bulk of the show takes place, are all color-coordinated in eye-searing comic book hues, which are guaranteed to have you wincing. Ken Billington’s lighting is similarly hopped up and unrestrained. Typical of the imbalances that afflict this production, Acme Sound Partners’ audio set-up seems ready to go, but can’t strut it stuff given the lackluster voices engaged to perform standards like “Put on a Happy Face” and “Baby, Talk to Me.” Garish but underpowered, this Birdie has migrated back to Broadway after years of summer stock and community theatre productions with its wings clipped.
It’s a Roundabout world, we just live it in. Besides Bye Bye Birdie and Wishful Drinking at Studio 54 the company has After Miss Julie at the American Airlines Theatre. Patrick Marber, author of the wickedly entertaining Closer, got it in his head that what the world needed was an update of Strindberg’s 19th century shocker to 1945 Britain, on the day when Winston Churchill was sent packing and a Labour government took the reins. This, and her jilting by a prospective husband, sends the troubled aristocrat Miss Julie (Sienna Miller) into the arms of her valet and chauffeur, John (Jonny Lee Miller, no relation). Though he is engaged to wed the sensible Christine (Marin Ireland), John is unable to resist Miss Julie, even as she treats him like a peasant and screeches at him like late-period Bette Davis. They clash, reconcile, make plans to go to New York, and kill a bird, with more balderdash to come.
The material makes no sense in a world that had discovered Freud and learned to distrust the class system, and the resettlement does Strindberg no favors. Nor does the casting of Miller, an occasionally striking film actress (Factory Girl) who wears Michael Krass’ lady-of-the-manor cocktail dress and scarily high heels with aplomb but shouts and pouts her way through the part. She and the other, more dutiful Miller are upstaged by Ireland, one of our best stage performers, in a fairly thankless part she wisely underplays.
Mark Brokaw directs more for melodrama than for meaning. It is a good-looking show, though the theatre, with a stage as vast as a CinemaScope screen, lacks the proper claustrophobic intimacy. As a result the actors are obliged to traverse Allen Moyer’s kitchen set more than they should, trying to fit the sink, cooking area, and pots and pans around them. Mark McCullough’s lighting is best at finding a despairing tone for the piece, with David Van Tieghem asked to do too much to contribute to the gloom—in one scene, unseen Labour revelers surround the estate like the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead. After Miss Julie plays through Dec. 6—but trust me you don’t want to go after her. —Robert Cashill
Bye Bye Birdie
Scenery Fabrication and Automation: Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc.
Lighting Equipment and Projections: PRG Lighting
Audio Equipment: PRG Audio
After Miss Julie
Scenery Construction: Great Lakes Scenic Studios
Lighting Equipment: PRG Lighting
Sound Equipment: Sound Associates