Tommy Tune and 'Birdie' are a grand confection

February 20, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

GIANT TINKERTOYS are the chief design motif in the production of "Bye Bye Birdie" that opened at the Lyric Opera House last night. And no doubt about it, this is Tinkertoy level material.

That is to say, it's downright silly -- a relic that harks back to the good old days when musicals were still called "musical comedies." What makes this touring production fun is that it glorifies in its own silliness. From the Tinkertoy sets to the crayon-colored costumes, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a teeny-bopping hop down memory lane. And, spreading the most contagious fun of all is ever-grinning, smooth-stepping Tommy Tune.

Tune plays Albert Peterson, manager of Conrad Birdie, a teen idol who has just been drafted. Suddenly Albert's financial future is in jeopardy, along with his long-standing romance with his secretary. Albert is an adult role, but when Tune dances, he unleashes the youthful exuberance of someone whose love affair with Broadway undoubtedly began with syrupy musicals like this. Decked out in a sunshine yellow suit and performing "Put On a Happy Face" he's the singing and dancing embodiment of a smile button.

Tune's role -- or at least the dancing part of it -- has been expanded for this production, which was directed by Gene Saks and choreographed by Edmond Kresley. Songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams also have written two new songs, both of which focus on Tune's character. The otherwise undistinguished "A Giant Step" offers an excuse for his biggest dance solo, and "He's Mine" is a spirited challenge duet in which Albert's mother and girlfriend fight over him.

Lenora Nemetz plays his patient girlfriend, and though she's a competent dancing partner for Tune (no small achievement), her singing voice sounds strained. As Albert's smothering mother, however, Marilyn Cooper is a marvelously comic pain in the neck.

Marc Kudisch has all the right hip-swiveling moves and vocal inflections as Elvis-like Birdie.

And as the lucky teen-ager randomly selected to receive Conrad's last civilian kiss, Susan Egan is the sweet-voiced epitome of American girlhood.

This revival is on the road because Tommy Tune wanted to tour in it, and Tune is the best reason to see it.

But he's not the only reason. "Birdie" is an ice cream soda of a musical -- lots of froth, minimal nutrition and a surplus of sweetness. In other words, it's a real indulgence in these days of low-fat yogurt and granola. So, sing a grateful Tune.

"Bye Bye Birdie" continues at the Lyric Opera House through March 8; call (410) 625-1400.

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