By Harry Haun
16 Oct 2009
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
The show's lyricist, Lee Adams (who made that bad "gray skies" call), and its composer, Charles Strouse, participated in the ribbon-cutting — as creators, along with book writer Michael Stewart — of the theatre's re-opening act.
Poised with scissors were Bank of America officials and assorted moneybags, who rebuilt the theatre around its original 1918 façade. Also present were Roundabout Theatre Company artistic director Todd Haimes and Hizzoner Himself, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, successfully resisting the urge to break into song.
The distance between Sweet Apple, OH (where Birdie is set) and Urinetown (the last show to inhabit that theatre) is three days short of four years and ten months. Built in 1918, the theatre was named for an actor-manager of that World War I vintage (not, as you might have imagined, the controversial author of Tropic of Cancer). Over the years, it has been known variously as the Park-Miller (a movie house), the Avon-on-the-Hudson (an X-rated movie house), Xenon (a disco) and the Kit Kat Klub (for Roundabout's environmentally correct Cabaret). In 1998, it reverted to its original handle, Henry Miller's Theatre.
The historical (or, at least, hysterical) reference point for Birdie is Elvis Presley's 1958 induction into the U.S. Army, long hair and all, at the height of his fame — and the "Girls! Girls! Girls!" he left behind. Ironically, it was through this event that Presley would meet his one and only wife, but it takes half a century of dust-settling to see this. At the time, a world of petticoat camp-followers was up in arms.
John Stamos, who has his heartthrob following, does not play Conrad Birdie, the boot camp-bound rock star. Nolan Gerard Funk does. Rather, Stamos is Birdie's songwriter and manager, Albert Peterson, and he nerds himself up with thick black horn-rims and a lily-livered way with the ladies — in particular, his domineering mama Mae (Jayne Houdyshell) and his altar-angling secretary, Rose Alvarez (Gina Gershon). Albert's brainstorm is to dash off a going-away ditty for Birdie, "One Last Kiss," and have him plant it on a representative, middle-class Everygirl fan, smack-dab on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Enter Sweet Apple's own Kim MacAfee (Allie Trimm)—replete with plot-thicking boyfriend (Matt Doyle) and family loons (Bill Irwin, Dee Hoty, Jake Evan Schwencke), and we're more or less off to the races.
The opening-night party sprawled all over the vast underground Hard Rock Café a block west on 43rd Street from the equally cavernous new theatre. Had guests pressed on another block and over one, they could have seen the original Rose Alvarez (Chita Rivera, a spirited 76), knocking 'em dead at Roseland.
Specialties of the house at the Hard Rock Café were cutely cued by the show we had just seen: "Sweet Apple-Tini" (i.e., apple sparkling juice and vodka) and "One Last Kiss" (pomegranate specialty juice, mandarin orange blossom and vodka).
The cast, from lesser names to leads, did their press interviews before entering the dining area, and a full complement of reporters was on hand to catch the utterings.
"Playbill's been pretty damn good to us," Stamos said, warming to my credentials. "They ran the pictures, they did the nice story, they did a nice color ad for us, and my favorite thing is: I have in my dressing room a blown-up Playbill of the original Bye Bye Birdie. Chita Rivera signed it and kissed it with her lip-prints, and Dick Van Dyke wrote on it, 'Show 'em the moves, Stamos.'"
Rivera had arranged the autograph of the original Albert for Stamos. "I love Dick Van Dyke," he said quite admiringly. "I never saw him do it except for the movie, and that was so different from the play. The character of Albert has that thing that makes people smile, and I hope I have that. That's all I really can do, is make people smile."
Gershon echoed the same sentiments when she arrived—last—looking ravishing in a fetching black outfit with roses in her hair. "Yes, they're Spanish roses," she replied to the obvious. "I always like to dress Spanish. It's, like, my secret fetish, and tonight I thought I could actually go out as Spanish Rose" [her big number].
"Opening a musical on Broadway is trying—you try something, then change it and try something else. It's really a lot of cutting and pasting and changing. It hasn't been as easy as it was when I did it at Parkman Junior High. Bye Bye Birdie was the first musical I had ever done. Actually, I was 14, and turned 15 a week later."
In exactly the same boat — in '09 — is the show's Kim MacAfee, 14-going-on-15 (come Oct. 27.) When she was 13, she was in 13, playing Patrice the Geek. Now she's filling a role made famous by Susan Watson on stage and Ann-Margret on film. It's a head spin. "I'm having an amazing time," she said. "I love the cast I'm working with. It's like a big family, and I'm enjoying every minute of it."
Hoty, who plays her mom, has her own mother in mind for this show: "She reminds me of my mother," the actress admitted. "I look like my mother. She used to wear her hair like this. She wore these kinds of clothes. My mother didn't wear as many crinolines, but I remember her dressing like this. So it's like a childhood homage."
The most formidable mother on that stage is Albert's smothering one—a fur-coated matriarch whose apron strings are stainless steel. "It's a beautiful role," said Houdyshell, relaxing in one of the back booths with the two women who helped her get a Tony nomination (for Well): writer/co-star Lisa Kron and director Leigh Silverman. "I am following some great ladies in this part—my God, the greatest ladies. It's a little daunting." She missed the original, Kay Medford, but she saw Maureen Stapleton in the film and Tyne Daly on TV.
Tony winner Irwin has the unenviable job of following Paul Lynde at his zaniest in the role that established his career: "I saw him do the movie, and I heard him on the record—and it is very hard to get his voice out of your mind when you first look at those lines of dialogue. But he's got very big shoes, and I'm not going to try to fill them directly. I'm just going to try to salute him by taking another angle."
He appreciated the smooth-sailing of opening night. "I had a good time tonight because everything went as it was supposed to, unlike the previous night. Actually, last night was great fun, too. Stamos kept the audience alive for the 12 minutes it took to fix the system. We were ever so hopeful that Don Rickles would come up on stage, but we didn't manage to get him over the orchestra pit and up there." Continued...