Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Review | ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ is here to affirm America’s essential wholesomeness

Imagine a modern-day U.S. Army knocking on Taylor Swift’s door and telling her she’s due for basic training. That’s basically what happened in 1958, when Elvis Presley got called up in a peacetime draft and shipped off to Germany — and lest any cultural moment go uncommodified, Broadway responded more or less immediately with “Bye Bye Birdie,” that genial ’60s contribution to the celeb-shenanigans-in-a-small-town genre. Centered on fictional rocker Conrad Birdie and almost painfully cheerful in both outlook and outcome, the show resurfaces now and again when our anxious republic needs reassuring about its essential wholesomeness.

And look, there’s not much arguing about what “Birdie is selling: This is a show that (with the lightest glaze of loving satire) hymns the notion of the “healthy, normal American boy,” a show in which a character originally played by Chita (!) Rivera (!!) pines for nothing so much as a quietly respectable marriage to an English teacher and a small-town princess sings wistfully about choosing a local boy and bending him to her marital will. This is a musical whose most famous song — “Put On a Happy Face,” a ditty quite magnificently detached from both plot and story — exists so its soft-soaping, soft-shoeing exponent can assure a young woman that she’d be more appealing if she’d only smile. Of course, the original Albert Peterson was Dick Van Dyke, so the soft soap was somehow less icky, and the soft-shoe was inevitable.

Christian Borle, Tony Award-winning star of “Something Rotten!” and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” shoulders half of the Birdie-wrangling burden in the production occupying the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater as part of the Broadway Center Stage series. His rubbery physical-comedy exertions as Albert occasionally trip past Van Dyke territory and into that of Don Knotts, but he’s an agreeable sort of doofus, a natural for this mother-plagued neurotic of a character. (Character veteran Caroline Aaron cheerfully gnaws the scenery as that mother, Mae Peterson, who’s as domineering and disagreeable and casually racist as ever.)

Krysta Rodriguez, like Borle a veteran of the cult-hit backstage drama “Smash” on NBC, steps in as Albert’s secretary and love interest, Rosie Alvarez, and if the role is probably beyond anything as sober as dignity, Rodriguez does bring it warmth and a plush voice.

For flash on the floor, turn to choreographer Denis Jones’s superbly drilled ensemble of Ohio teeny-boppers, whose collective exertions upon Birdie’s arrival in the tiny town of Sweet Apple resemble nothing so much as the desperate-ecstatic writhings of a netful of mackerel, dumped dockside and trying to regain safe water.

Turn, too, to Ephraim Sykes, whose tight-pantsed, tall-haired Conrad Birdie looks back beyond Elvis to the arguably even more transgressive Little Richard. Not that Marc Bruni’s staging itself intends anything transgressive with Sykes’s casting; the production’s only seeming awareness of color is candy-hued, and its mild conflicts play out in a race-oblivious “Bridgerton” mode, blithely waving aside any sense that its ’60s America may have involved any racial upheavals. Sykes can certainly move, though, and he’s got the requisite suavity for “Honestly Sincere,” the number that sends Sweet Apple’s moms a-swooning.

Richard Kind, whose agreeable mug represents kryptonite for the sourest of critics, partners with a brisk Jennifer Laura Thompson as pater and mater to Sweet Apple’s own Kim MacAfee (Ashlyn Maddox), the lucky girl upon whom Conrad Birdie will bestow “one last kiss” before departing for the Army.

And you’ll watch out for more of Maddox, if you’re wise: Charming, entirely assured at center stage and possessed of a water-on-silver soprano that tempts comparisons to the likes of Rebecca Luker and Barbara Cook, she feels like a certified real thing ready to happen. If there’s any reason still to stage a feather-light entertainment like “Bye Bye Birdie,” it’s so beloved performers like Kind and Aaron can come out for a cakewalk — and to showcase rising talents like Maddox, who’s very much got the gravitas of a star.

Bye Bye Birdie, through June 15 at the Kennedy Center in Washington. About 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

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