The musical -- which features a fabulous score by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse and book by Michael Stewart -- is set primarily in the fictional town of Sweet Apple, Ohio. That's where struggling manager Albert Peterson (John Stamos) and his no-nonsense yet lovestruck secretary Rosie Alvarez (Gina Gershon) have brought super-popular rock star Conrad Birdie (Nolan Gerard Funk, who simply lacks the charisma for the role) to kiss local teen Kim MacAfee (Allie Trimm) on The Ed Sullivan Show before shipping off to war.
Unfortunately, director and choreographer Robert Longbottom's heightened, comic-book vision for the show -- aided by the fine work of set designer Andrew Jackness and costume designer Gregg Barnes -- tends to distance us from the material. To his credit, though, Longbottom's choreography captures and evokes the youthful energy of the late 1950s.
Still, making the most of the show's great score is the key to any successful production of Birdie, and that's where Longbottom really comes up short -- which is especially frustrating since the show doesn't require great singers. On paper, perhaps, the casting of Stamos and Gershon in the leads might have seemed inspired. On stage, however, they have no chemistry and seem entirely mismatched. Stamos sings pleasantly -- and his second act number, "Talk to Me," in which he's backed by a male quartet, is the show's highlight. But his Albert seems far too much of a lightweight to have earned Rosie's steadfast love. Gershon acts the role well, but she has a small vocal range and lumbers through her dance steps with considerable effort.
Once you get past the show's two stars, the casting quality picks up a great deal. Longbottom's decision to use genuine teenagers for the show's ensemble is a good one, since they are quite endearing as a group. Trimm, who possesses a lovely singing voice, is perfect for the role of Kim, as she comically teeters on the precipice of womanhood.
On the adult side, Jayne Houdyshell gives a strong comic performance as Mae, Albert's smothering mother. Stealing the show, however, is Bill Irwin as Kim's stern but confused father, Harry. Simply put, his work is an inspired clown's creation. That said, any production of Birdie which is mostly memorable for its Harry has plenty of problems -- and this one definitely does.