Tuesday, July 29, 2008

High-flying Birdie

The "Kids!" of Bye Bye Birdie network on their land lines.

Positive buzz had built around Bye Bye Birdie at the North Shore Music Theatre, so I checked out the show last weekend. And the good news is Birdie's buzz, as is usually the case with buzz, was right on target: the North Shore has a hit on its hands - this sly, sweet update boasts a dazzling cast (including many local teens), a smart set that smoothly turns its arena stage into a metaphor for the show itself, and a series of clever gambits and bright, antic dances. Indeed, the whole first half of the show plays like a nostalgic dream; and if its second act wobbles a bit by comparison, perhaps part of the problem is the original's meandering book. Still, even at cruising altitude, this Birdie remains an amusing, lively flight back to the days of sock hops and soda shops.

Of course way back in 1960, when the show premiered in a famous staging by Gower Champion (and featured Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, and Paul Lynde) Birdie boasted a fresher edge than it has at the North Shore. Its central premise, a satire of Elvis Presley's 1958 induction into the Army, was both affectionate and pointed (Elvis returned to civilian life, and his pubescent public, just before Birdie's premiere): the show mocked the singer's white-trash manners and the naive hysteria of his fans, but also cast a skeptical eye on the paranoia his pelvis incited among heartland conservatives. This double take on mass culture per se marked something new in the Broadway musical, and the knowing tone of Bye Bye Birdie would slowly spread through the sitcoms and movies of the 60s.

And of course the same cultural cross-currents still ripple through American life today, but the North Shore focuses not on any contemporary echoes in the material, but on its period detail - a strategy which for the most part works winningly. Howard C. Jones's witty set, a spinning turntable just waiting for a giant 45, cleverly grounds us in the musical's metaphoric landscape, while giant "console" TVs overhead beam in corny 1950s imagery (such as the low-rent acts that often actually filled "The Ed Sullivan Show," on which "Conrad Birdie," the show's Elvis factotum, visits "Sweet Apple, Ohio" to say good-bye to the girls of America). And director/choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, in his debut at the North Shore, conjures all sorts of witty gambits for his staging - including a beautifully detailed slow-mo knock-out on "Ed Sullivan" - while simultaneously delivering some inspired, lightly-crazed dance numbers (in which local teens drafted from the North Shore's theatre academy easily keep up with the professionals).

Conrad Birdie seduces Sweet Apple, Ohio.

I think it has to be said, though, that neither Lichtefeld nor his talented cast can quite triumph over Birdie's book, which begins to wander in the second half (even if the score, which includes the classics "Put on a Happy Face" and "Lot of Livin' to Do," remains sturdy). The show has two show-stopping performers in Bianca Marroquin as Rosie, the Latina love interest of Birdie's songwriter/manager, Albert, and Eric Ulloa, as the hot-but-slobby Conrad Birdie himself. But after its first-act curtain on "Ed Sullivan," the show doesn't really know what to do with Birdie (it hints that he could corrupt the local teens but doesn't really follow through), and Rosie's conflict (Albert, her man, can't cut the apron strings in order to marry her) is a little too trite and a little too drawn out, and doesn't really reinforce the Birdie plot.

Still, both performers keep us engaged (even when hoofing their way through obvious filler like Rosie's gambol with the Shriners, during which Marroquin - at left - demonstrates that yes, she's in Rivera's league). And as Albert's monstrous mother, Mary-Pat Green turns her long-suffering schtick into an amusingly controlled tease. As Albert himself, James Patterson proves a looker and a brilliant hoofer, as well as a capable comedian, but he doesn't quite convey either Albert's inner conflict or his genuine love for Rosie (which would go a long way toward explaining why this spitfire wants to settle down in the suburbs). And even though the cast is strong across the board (with nice turns from Robert Saoud and Madeleine Doherty as Birdie's put-upon hosts), somehow the snide self-awareness of the original goes missing; the essential falseness of Sweet Apple (which of course is what made the sneer of Conrad Birdie - and Elvis - so appealing) is lost in the show's nostalgic glow, as is the slightly effeminate sheen of its vision of suburban manhood (after all, the original featured Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly).

Meanwhile the show's racial politics remain intriguing. "Conrad Birdie" has been cleansed of any sense of the "race record" crossover that, in part, made Elvis Presley so electric in the Eisenhower era; in fact, we're asked to believe that Birdie's songs could derive not from African-American blues but from some nice little white guy in New York. At the same time, said nice little white guy, oddly enough, has a Latina girlfriend - an amusing way to slip "race" back into the equation, if at a remove less likely to ruffle white feathers. Even this, of course, was too much for Hollywood, which in the film version deracinated the role and gave it to Janet Leigh (and then cast sex kitten Ann-Margret as the sweet, squeaky-clean Kim, who swoons for Birdie!). The North Shore, perhaps wisely, doesn't really do much with these lingering undertones (the dislike of Albert's mom for Rosie is given more a Freudian than a racist spin); indeed, it's hard to imagine what could be done with this material without alienating somebody. In its day, Birdie could soft-pedal its assimilationist message, while still insinuating it; today's attitudes, of course, while utterly committed to diversity on the surface, are actually far more complicated and recondite than the simple polarizations of 1960. Making Birdie truly soar might require, however, finding a key to that particular puzzle. Still, in the meantime I'm grateful for this smart, spritely revival - and I hope to see director Michael Lichtefeld listed again soon on the North Shore's marquee.

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