For all its popularity in schools and community theater, "Bye Bye Birdie" rarely lights up the professional stage. Broadway waited until 2009 to revive the 1960 musical, and the only national tour that made noise was in the 1990s. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Twin Cities leading professional musical theater stage for 44 years, opened its first-ever "Birdie" on Friday.
This odd paradox -- a show wildly popular on one level and treated coolly on the other -- raises questions about the musical by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, with a book by Michael Stewart. It's quaint, a little naïve and meagerly constructed. But it is filled with nostalgia, happiness and a rasher of buoyant tunes by Strouse and Adams that have hooked our cultural ear. How many times have you heard an antihistamine commercial encourage us that "Gray skies are gonna clear up; Put on a Happy Face."
Director Michael Brindisi's "Birdie" surfs that frothy crest with a friendly and charming production. As the best stuff at Chanhassen always does, this show dances and sings with heart and energy. Production numbers jump with joy, and the performers seem to take as gospel Conrad Birdie's exhortation that "Life's a Ball, just waiting for you."
Chanhassen's staging also unpacks "Birdie's" wry commentary about the mania and press manipulation that hit full volume with the rock 'n' roll age. Conrad is a star whose every move requires management. "Hymn to Sunday Night Television" wonderfully sends up Reality TV -- 40 years before that sort of TV became a reality.
As a play, "Birdie" has a split personality.
The fizzy first act gets Conrad (Frank Moran) from New York to a small Ohio town, where he will kiss Kim MacAfee (Jessica Fredrickson), a member of his fan club, live on the Ed Sullivan show. Along the way, Conrad's manager, Albert Peterson (Michael Gruber), cheers up gloomy girls with "Happy Face," secretary Rose Alvarez (Ann Michels) dreams of being an "English Teacher's Wife" and the teens burn up the gossip trail in "Telephone Hour." Throw in Conrad's "Honestly Sincere" and we've got a show!
Stewart's book thereafter runs out of plot. The second act devolves into a series of performance pieces. Gruber and Michels, with a terrific assist from the ensemble, admirably keep things hopping. Keith Rice fumes and fumbles his way through Mr. Harry MacAfee's frustrations with "Kids." As the town mayor and a Shriner, Tod Petersen takes small moments and makes them comic gems.
"Birdie," truly rests on the fraught romance of Albert and Rosie, and thank goodness for Gruber and Michels. This winsome, attractive couple has warmth and decency (best evident in Michels) and an earnest shyness (Gruber).
Moran's Conrad swaggers and swivels enough to send women swooning; Fredrickson's Kim looks and sings like central casting's perfect wholesome teenager. Albert's mother, Mae, is a plum role for an actor willing to dredge the comic stereotype of an overbearing, manipulative mother. Seri Johnson is right on the mark.
Only the set design for this excellent production leaves us scratching our head. Brindisi has placed "Birdie" into something resembling a playground -- almost as though a recent "Sesame Street Live" had just left town and there wasn't time to retool the stage. Oddly, it does not detract from the strong performances, but it is a puzzler.
"Birdie" is a product of its time, but there is enough fun, wit and song to make it worthwhile.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299