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AP REVIEW: ‘Birdie’ Still Has Appeal

May 7, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) _ Nearly 45 years after its Broadway premiere, ``Bye Bye Birdie″ seems as innocent _ and as far away _ as that 1920s exercise in classic nostalgia, ``No, No, Nanette.″

Yet ``Birdie,″ the final offering of this season’s ``Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert″ at City Center, still has enormous appeal as it works its way toward the half-century mark.

``Birdie,″ which originally opened on Broadway in April 1960, is pre-Beatles and before Aretha Franklin, but Elvis Presley was in his prime and the King’s induction into the Army served as the inspiration for this musical about a rock ‘n’ roll idol named Conrad Birdie going off to serve his country. But not before swivel-hipped Conrad plants a kiss on one of his biggest fans, 15-year-old Kim MacAfee during a telecast of ``The Ed Sullivan Show″ no less.

Among other things, ``Birdie″ was the Broadway debuts of composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and book writer Michael Stewart. All would go on to even more glory in the New York theater.

But ``Birdie″ was their first success and the youthful enthusiasm of their initial Broadway experience remains one of the musical’s joys. The score is fun, particularly in Robert Ginzler’s bouncy, sometimes jazz-flecked orchestrations.

Strouse’s melodies cover a lot of territory, from mock rock (``One Last Kiss″) to comedy numbers (``Kids″) to traditional show tunes such as ``Put on a Happy Face.″ Adams’ lyrics are unassuming but clever and Stewart’s book, adapted here by the invaluable David Ives, has the brash, witty feel of those topical musical revues that were so popular in the late 1950s.

Yet ``Birdie,″ efficiently directed by Jerry Zaks in his best, rapid-fire, George Abbott manner, also is a comic love story. Make that a triangle _ between a gal, a guy and his domineering mother. It tells the story of the romance between Conrad’s manager, a mamma’s boy named Albert Peterson, and Albert’s long-suffering secretary, Rose. In-between stands Albert’s formidable, mink-clad mother, Mae. She is played by Doris Roberts, back in the theaters during her hiatus from television’s ``Everybody Loves Raymond.″

Roberts is a hoot, delivering Mae’s put-downs of her potential daughter-in-law with deadly comic accuracy. Daniel Jenkins portrays Albert (Dick Van Dyke played the role originally) with an ingratiating energy.

Best of all is Karen Ziemba, who may not be as Spanish as the story proclaims her to be, but who has a warm stage presence and a lovely voice. Ziemba more than ably handles Casey Nicholaw’s choreography, most effectively in the lively ``Shriners’ Ballet.″

Bob Gaynor, done up in tight gold pants and modified pompadour, gyrates sexily as the faux Elvis.

As the most prominent members of the MacAfee family, Walter Bobbie scores as the exasperated father and Jessica Grove sings sweetly as the Conrad-besotted daughter.

``Bye Bye Birdie″ is not exactly a musical-theater rarity. Although the show has never had a Broadway revival, it gets done all over the country in countless amateur productions. There may not have been an overwhelming need for ``Encores″ to do such a popular musical, but it’s nice to see ``Birdie″ back on a New York stage in such a spiffy production.

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