Friday, October 30, 2009

Boffo Bye Bye Birdie!


Inspired by its inclusion in one of my favorite shows (Mad Men), I recently watched the musical Bye Bye Birdie with Jason Alexander, Tyne Daly, and Vanessa Williams. I'm so glad that I took the time to do so. (Many is the the time I check a title out of the library and never get to it.)

This 1960 musical is the masterwork of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. It originally featured Dick van Dyke and Chita Rivera as the music industry managers of an Elvis Presley-inspired singer named Conrad Birdie. The show was inspired by Presley's 1958 departure for a hitch in the Army. It depicts his time in the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, where he's engaged in a publicity scheme: he's going to bestow a last goodbye kiss on a contest-winning acolyte before leaving the country.

Memorable songs from the score include "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do". I think the film version of the film is fondly remembered also--it memorably featured Paul Lynde as Ann-Margaret's father singing "Kids".

The 1995 version showcases the musical talents of Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams. Directed by Gene Sacks, it perfectly captures the look of the time. I found my eyes engulfed in period detail, and completely impressed with how subtly it was captured.

You must find this movie and enjoy Jason Alexander twirling around a rail station lobby with his partner as he sings "Put on a Happy Face". (Or just click on my YouTube link!) He doesn't look like a dancer, but you'll revise your opinion after viewing this scene. He's perfect for the role as a Momma's boy trying to break free at the age of 39. Forehead slaps and rolling eyes abound--and George Costanza looks like he's from another time. I loved how his eyes looked longingly at his Latin spitfire and his mugging in general.

Vanessa Williams as the spitfire is a revelation. With her raven hair and deep dark eyes, she is hypnotic, as perfectly communicated in her main number performed at a men's club, "Shriner's Ballet". I was struck by the staging of this one. The adoring faces of the men as they hoist Vanessa and carry her down a dance line is hilarious, and her dancing--well, all I can say is I've put more Vanessa Williams movies on hold at the library. If you love her in the TV series Ugly Betty, you're going to fall head over heels for her here.

One last word. Tyne Daly as Jason Alexander's mother is an absolute hoot. With her long fur coat serving as a metaphor for the burden she's always been for her son, she delivers her lines with such verve and humor. This role could have been simply annoying in someone else's hands, but she nails it. I can't erase the image of her at the end of the film, falling over backwards into a pond as she realizes that her "little" boy is leaving her.

The show is currently being restaged on Broadway. I doubt that they can top what I watched!

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