In today’s Wall Street Journal I review Goodspeed Musicals’ revival of Bye Bye Birdie. Here’s an excerpt.
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Musicals don’t have to be first-rate to be fun. “Bye Bye Birdie,” a peaweight farce about the coming of rock and roll to Sweet Apple, Ohio, is the quintessential case in point. While it was a hit on Broadway in 1960 and remains popular to this day with high-school and amateur theaters, professional revivals are increasingly rare, and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2009 production was a major meltdown (only one of the stars could sing). But “Bye Bye Birdie” still has undeniable charm, as well as a well-crafted book by Michael Stewart and a Charles Strouse-Lee Adams score that sports two blue-chip standards, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “Put on a Happy Face.” Stage it well and you’ll send everybody home with a smile. Stage it really well—the way Goodspeed Musicals is doing—and they’ll go home laughing out loud.
What makes Goodspeed’s “Birdie” fly high is the presence at the helm of Jenn Thompson, one of the most talented directors on the East Coast. Ms. Thompson first came into view four years ago with an imaginative off-Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” a serious comedy that’s harder to stage convincingly than you’d think. She followed it up in 2013 with a similarly striking production of William Inge’s “Natural Affection,” a 1963 Broadway flop that proved to be a gem in urgent need of rediscovery. But Ms. Thompson, who played an orphan in the original Broadway production of “Annie,” is just as much at home with musicals, and she has brought to “Bye Bye Birdie” the same fresh point of view that revitalized “Lost in Yonkers.”
Ms. Thompson has moved the action forward from 1958, the year in which Elvis Presley (the real-life model for Conrad Birdie, played by Rhett Guter) went into the Army, to 1961, when John Kennedy led America out of the Eisenhower era. This makes it easier for her to recast the show as an exercise in baby-boomer nostalgia, an interpretation underlined by the clever video montages of early-‘60s TV commercials (Tang, anyone?) and home movies that preface each act. Yet there is no distancing irony: Instead, Ms. Thompson has turned “Bye Bye Birdie” into a wholly affectionate portrait of life on the New Frontier.
Nor is there is anything faded or dusty about her production. Not only has Ms. Thompson interpolated two “new” songs by Messrs. Strouse and Adams, one from the 1963 film of “Bye Bye Birdie” and one from Gene Saks’ 1995 TV movie version, but she’s discreetly brisked up Stewart’s book….
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Read the whole thing here.
A clip from the dress rehearsal of Goodspeed Musicals’ revival of Bye Bye Birdie::
Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh perform “Put On a Happy Face” in the 1963 film version of Bye Bye Birdie, directed by George Sidney: