Bring Back Birdie: They're Reviving WHAT???
"It was three months out of my life and I've carried it with me for twenty-six years."
Marcel Forestieri was all smiles as we chatted about his Broadway debut playing the title role in the 1981 four-performance musical Bring Back Birdie. One of the guests of honor at the Opening Doors Theatre Company's premiere production of their Closing Notice series, Forestieri flew in from Las Vegas for the two-performance run of their abridged revival at The Duplex.
Called "a living cast album" by Suzanne Adams (producer and artistic director) and Hector Coris (director), a talented cast of eleven sang the Charles Strouse (music)/Lee Adams (lyrics) score and acted out just enough of Michael Stewart's book (or sometimes narration) to hold the story together.
The first Broadway musical sequel since George and Ira Gershwin, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind tried matching their Of Thee I Sing success with Let 'em Eat Cake, the talent behind this revisit with four of the characters from the 1960 hit Bye, Bye, Birdie (also penned by Strouse, Adams and Stewart) was impressive. Chita Rivera was back as Rosie, but this time her Albert was Donald O'Connor, making his Broadway debut. Maria Karnilova was cast as Albert's mother Mae and Maurice Hines was featured as a soul-singing detective. Joe Layton directed.
And then there was Marcel Forestieri, who wasn't even an actor when pegged to play the hip-shaking rock 'n' roll idol. "I was an Elvis impersonator since 1970, before it became popular. Bring Back Birdie was my first audition and all of a sudden I was blessed to be on stage at the Martin Beck Theatre with Chita Rivera and Donald O'Connor."
Having seen an early preview of Bring Back Birdie, I can tell you there was a good show lurking beneath all its problems. The basic plot was actually pretty clever. It's 1981 and Albert and Rosie are the parents of two teenagers in Forest Hills, Queens, where Albert has indeed given up show business to become an English teacher. But when NBC offers him $20,000 to find Conrad Birdie, who seems to have disappeared twenty years ago after being discharged from the army, and have him make an appearance on the Grammy Awards broadcast, the search is on. Clues lead them to Arizona, where Birdie has quit showbiz for good and has taken on a new identity as a small town mayor. Albert coaxes him out of retirement, but after he's booed off the stage playing a warm-up gig as the opening act for a punk rock band, Conrad refuses to appear on the Grammys. Contractually obligated to get Birdie on the show, Albert announces to the world that Conrad is dead. Birdie's popularity soars once the public thinks he's gone for good, and now the former teen idol wants to be alive again.
But despite its share of funny scenes, catchy songs and spirited performances, Bring Back Birdie was drowning in subplots involving a religious cult (Rev. Sun and the Sunnies), a replacement wife for Albert named Rose II and a punk rock band named Filth that (in early previews) made music by rhythmically flushing toilets. Playing all of its 31 previews in New York, word spread quickly that this one was in trouble, and though changes were made, there was little time to fix the show while giving eight performances a week.
No doubt some attending the Opening Doors production at The Duplex came to see just how bad the material could be, but Coris' cast, performing without microphones, played the show honestly sincere, with only the slightest bit of winking by narrator Blayne Levin during the plot's more outlandish twists. The 90 minute presentation was brisk, goofy and a lot of fun. Though Dana Barathy normally sports a bob matching Chita Rivera's Kiss of the Spider Woman look, her performance was in no way an impersonation. The tiny cabaret stage wasn't meant for dancing, but still she managed to flash some hot moves along with a sharp comic timing and strong belt. Doug Chitel's Albert was even less like Donald O'Connor, or even Dick Van Dyke; getting big laughs playing the role as a brash outer boroughs tough guy (maybe a bit Jimmy Durante-ish) who goes soft at his mama's call.
Denise DeMirjian was a nicely overbearing Mae, having to squeeze laughs out of the book's weakest material. Jeff Pierce was funny as the rusty Birdie trying to get his hip-shaking muscles back in business and Juson Williams, in the role Hines originated, made with some inspired wailing while leading the cast in a gospel fake funeral.
A terrific ensemble (Desiree Davar, Scott McLean Harrison, Blayne Levin, Maria Maloney, David Perlman and Marc Tumminelli) covered various roles and was obviously having a blast with Christine Schwalenberg's appropriately silly choreography. They sounded great accompanied by pianist Jason Sirois under Andrew Wheeler's music direction.
In his program notes, Coris reminds us that shows branded with the "flop" label "are still created with the same energy, good intentions, passion and craft as any successful show." This respect for the effort and love of the Broadway Musical was shining through the evening as the cast performed this imperfect effort with gusto.
The next two productions in the Closing Notice series will be It's a Bird… It's a Plane… It's Superman! and Whoop-Up. Visit www.ODTConline.org for details.
Photo: (l-r) Doug Chitel, Dana Barathy, Juson Williams, Denise DeMirjian, Jeff Pierce, David Perlman (kneeling), Blayne Levin, Maria Maloney and Desiree Davar