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Fluffed-up 'Bye-Bye Birdie' flutters into viewers' hearts

Television producer Robert Halmi Sr. ("Lonesome Dove," "Streets of Laredo") has a thing for adapting Broadway musicals. He scored nicely with "Gypsy," starring Bette Midler. Now he is taking a whirl with "Bye Bye Birdie," which opened on Broadway, starring Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, in April 1960 and ran for 608 performances.

Will a prime-time audience sit still for three hours of a fluffy musical about a 1950s teen-idol singer, bearing more than a little resemblance to a guy named Elvis, who is drafted into the Army, much to the anguish of his perpetually screaming fans?

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As it happens, the musical, with a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, is a repertory favorite in schools across the country. Mr. Halmi is counting on a strong recognition factor. In fact, this is a swell production, going back to the show's original innocence, lost in the film version starring a sex-kittenish Ann-Margret.

This version, directed by Gene Saks, captures the sweet looniness of an era in which nymphets shrieked hysterically for their pop idols. The only threats these teen-agers face are fretting parents, one of whom indignantly wails, "You dare say 'puberty' in front of your own father!"

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The focus this time around is on Albert Peterson, a 39-year-old mama's boy played by Jason Alexander, who reminds viewers that before "Seinfeld" he was a stage star, winning a Tony Award for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."

Albert is a theatrical manager who, with the help of a sharp assistant and would-be wife, Rose (Vanessa Williams), schemes to get one more big hit out of Conrad Birdie (Marc Kudisch) by sending him to Sweet Apple, Ohio, to get one last kiss from a teen-age fan named Kim (Chynna Phillips). Kim's slow-simmering father is played by George Wendt, Albert's domineering mother by Tyne Daly. It's a strong cast.

Some songs, like "Speak to Me," that were dropped from the 1963 movie have been restored. Further, Strouse/Adams have written several new songs, none memorable but all serviceable.

The choreography, originally created by Gower Champion, has been energetically reinterpreted by Ann Reinking. "Bye Bye Birdie" is an aggressively likable romp. Do you know of any other musical that has an ode to "The Ed Sullivan Show"? Watch and smile along. Next on Mr. Halmi's schedule: "Mame." And then maybe "Man of La Mancha."



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