Iconic musical ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ sings again at Kennedy Center

The youngest stars shine brightest in this showcase of rising talent.

What’s the story, morning glory? What’s the tale, nightingale? Did you hear about Hugo and Kim (and Conrad and Albert and Rosie and Mae)? With “The Telephone Hour,” Bye Bye Birdie lays claim to one of Broadway’s most iconic earworms. And in a new production running through June 15 as part of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series, the classic musical’s iconic score is placed front and center for paramount pleasure.

Bye Bye Birdie finds talent manager Albert Peterson (Christian Borle) in a pickle: his biggest star, teen idol Conrad Birdie (Ephraim Sykes), has been drafted into the army. To make matters worse, his long-suffering colleague and girlfriend Rosie (Krysta Rodriguez) sees an opportunity in this misfortune to finally settle down into a normal life free from the young star, if not his overbearing mother. Rosie devises a final PR stunt to preserve Conrad’s celebrity and save the business from financial ruin: he will offer “One Last Kiss” to an adoring fan on The Ed Sullivan Show. The selected fan, 16-year-old Kim McAfee (Ashlyn Maddox), must navigate a budding romance with heartbroken boyfriend Hugo, not to mention her uptight parents, to see this ultimate dream to fruition.

Ephraim Sykes and Company in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ (‘A Lotta Livin to Do’). Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Above-the-title stars Borle and Rodriguez offer engaging performances that set the pace for the production from the outset. Borle is exceptionally expressive, embracing Birdie’s slightly warped world and bringing his performance near the brink of excess. Rodriguez does her best to match Borle, wading somewhat stiffly through an occasionally clunky script, but breezing through her songs with ease. Both of them embrace their musical moments to shine and, in doing so, pay appropriate homage to the originators of their roles, Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera. Borle exquisitely executes Denis Jones’ jubilant choreography in “Put on a Happy Face,” while Rodriguez’s silent expressions in “One Boy” tell us everything we need to know about Rosie’s enduring devotion to Albert.

As Harry and Doris McAfee, veteran actors Richard Kind and Jennifer Laura Thompson deliver predictably wonderful performances. But the youngest stars shine brightest in this Birdie, which is functionally a showcase of rising talent. As Kim, Maddox is sensational. Silver-voiced and savvy, she sincerely captures Kim’s transitional adolescence with a welcome wink. Miguel Gil is underutilized as Hugo Peabody, but gives an attuned, mature performance, even when his character demonstrates the opposite behavior. With a glittery purple jacket and deviously playful smile, Sykes’ Conrad is more Little Richard than Elvis Presley. And as Sweet Apple teens Harvey Johnson and Ursula Merkle, Victor De Paula Rocha and Jackera Davis maximize the smallish roles given to them through sheer force. Rocha is especially magnetic in the dance sequences, exuding so much energy that lighting designer Cory Pattak’s bold, colorful washes almost seem dim in comparison.

Michael Stewart’s book is a terrific example of Golden Age musical structure, and his cheeky riffs on adolescence, generational misunderstandings, and celebrity still elicit plenty of well-deserved laughs. But even with the assistance of adept adapters Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins, Birdie struggles to hide its age behind the original treatment of ethnic stereotypes. For example, in the song “A Healthy, Normal, American Boy,” this production excises the original references to “Indochina” and “Old Virginnie” in favor of “Alaska” and “Hawai’i.” But the stereotypes are so firmly entrenched in the plot that such omissions and changes are unable to be made entirely. If she’s not guilting her son into doing her bidding, Albert’s mother Mae (Caroline Aaron, charming, if one-note) is belittling Rosie with references to Mexico, the Spanish language, and a life “south of the border” (which tees up one of the score’s better-known songs, “Spanish Rose”). Stewart’s book doesn’t validate Mae’s bigotry, but the incessant nagging at Rosie gets old quickly.

Still, Birdie is not in such a state that it warrants total retirement. If anything, this production by executive producer Jeffrey Finn and director Marc Bruni has given Birdie the ideal treatment, exemplifying the property’s best aspects so completely that the lesser components are simply unable to stand in the way of its success. It’s hard to see the musical receiving a major resident revival any time soon (the first and only Broadway revival in 2009 ran only four months with John Stamos and Gina Gershon), but perhaps brief presentations like this installment of Broadway Center Stage are enough to scratch the itch.

Christian Borle and Krysta Rodriguez in ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.Christian Borle and Krysta Rodriguez in ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

Bruni, who has directed past Broadway Center Stage iterations with The Music Man and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, fully asserts himself as a master of this presentational style. Birdie premiered in an era of much larger casts (and lower costs), and adapting the material to reflect today’s production capabilities, especially in a limited run such as this, is no small feat. Through limited doubling and combining of some featured roles, Bruni’s production is trim, but balanced. With a utilitarian cast of 24 (the 2009 Broadway revival had 33 performers compared to 47 in the original production), Bruni and Jones totally manage to keep the stage from feeling empty.

Fortunately, the orchestra is nearly as large as the cast (John Bell serves as music director), exploding through the Eisenhower Theater as a pleasant reminder of the quality of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ sweet score. Building on Robert Ginzler’s original orchestrations, Josh Clayton’s nimble additions optimize the orchestra to facilitate a rich sound, and the result is thrilling. For Golden Age Broadway fans, many of these songs will feel like old friends, from “An English Teacher” to “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” Hearing them in this manner can easily transport one to an era just before the emergence of the “rock musical,” where overtures were a given and light pastiche was the name of the game.

Ephraim Sykes and Company in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ (‘Honestly Sincere’). Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.Ephraim Sykes and Company in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ (‘Honestly Sincere’). Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.

And the orchestra is unmissable as the centerpiece of scenic designer Lee Savage’s angular platform set. Relying heavily on projections by Nathan Scheuer (used practically, but to great comic effect when the McAfees beam into The Ed Sullivan Show), Savage flies in large signs to introduce additional dimensions to the stage: Maude’s Roadside Retreat, Almaelou offices, etc. Pattak’s rich strokes of blue, pink, and yellow light are complemented by Tom Watson’s exuberant costumes, which are a veritable parade of bright printed patterns.

The stunning visual of the band and the bright splashes of color are only amplified when the cast is executing Jones’ evocative dance sequences. He smartly blends traditional musical theater choreography with some touchstone dance moves of that rock-and-roll era. In the apt hands of the ensemble, the final product is astonishing.

Combined with tick, tick…BOOM! and the upcoming Nine, this Broadway Center Stage season covers half a century of musical theater. While Birdie is the earliest of the three offerings, and is more likely seen in high school auditoriums than professional houses these days, this production manages to bring new energy to an old property. Sitting in the Eisenhower and feeling those old songs from that first-rate orchestra wash over you, how could you not put on a happy face?

Running Time: Two hours and 30 mminutes, including one intermission.

Bye Bye Birdie plays through June 15, 2024, in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($59–$325, with student rush and discounts available) at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324.

The Bye Bye Birdie program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

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