Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hi Hi Birdie For First Time In Nearly 50 Years

Hi Hi Birdie For First Time In Nearly 50 Years

Bye Bye Birdie, that longtime staple of high school musicals, is finally back on Broadway after a nearly 50 year absence.

With a book by Michael Stewart and score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Bye Bye Birdie enjoyed boffo box office during its initial --- and until recently, its only -- Rialto run that began April 14, 1960 at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) and ended 607 performances later at the Shubert Theatre on October 7, 1961.

The original Birdie was directed and choreographed by the great Gower Champion. That incarnation earned eight Tony nominations including for Best Musical, as well as for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Dick Van Dyke (as Albert Peterson), who was catapulted to superstar status. Chita Rivera (as Rose Alvarez) received her first of nine Tony nominations for her work. Van Dyke and Rivera reunited during the run of her Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life to relive a bit of Birdie when they sang "Put On A Happy Face."

Other major actors involved in the original cast included Paul Lynde (as Harry MacAfee), Kay Medford (as Albert's mother Mae) and Charles Nelson Reilly (as Mr. Henkel). Then, of course, there was Dick Gautier, who portrayed pop idol Conrad Birdie. The role may have been fashioned after Elvis Presley, but the name was a direct play on Conway Twitty's, who had initially been slated to play Conrad Birdie but dropped out of the production before it was ever seen by the public.

As I've previously noted, while a revival never made it to Broadway before Roundabout Theatre Company's new effort, there was an attempt to bring back Birdie via the ill-fated 1981 sequel Bring Back Birdie, which closed on Broadway after only four regular performances. Not even the combined star power of Chita Rivera and Donald O'Connor (as Albert -- Van Dyke's role redux) could keep that open, but the legendary actress did manage a Tony nod yet again.

Now, Robert Longbottom becomes the first to revive Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway. The director/choreographer is also the first to mount a show at the newly restored Henry Miller's Theatre where previews for Birdie began September 10. Headlined by John Stamos as Albert and Gina Gershon as Rose, the cast also boasts Bill Irwin as Harry, Jayne Houdyshell as Mae, Nolan Gerard Funk as Conrad Birdie, Allie Trimm as Kim MacAfee and Dee Hoty as Mrs. MacAfee.

Earlier, it was reported that the tune "Shriner's Ballet" was dropped like a hot fez from the show. Gershon told New York Daily News theatre critic Joe Dziemianowicz that the dance number previously thought to be benign enough for countless high school productions suddenly "seemed a little too gang rape-y" for the Broadway revival. Many wags summarily suggested that perhaps the bigger problem might be that Gershon wasn't up to the challenge of filling Chita Rivera's distinguished dance slippers.

Whatever the case may be, Bye Bye Birdie is already saying hello to packed houses in previews, filling up Henry Miller's Theatre close to 95% capacity. While last week's earnings of $533,736 may seem on the low side, as a non-profit theatre, Roundabout has a huge subscriber base so the number is a bit deceptive. And although the show is only slated to run through January 10, 2010, don't be surprised to see an extension if reviews are favorable after its October 15 opening. Look for my SOB Review shortly after as well.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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