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Give This Birdie the Bird

Let the buyer beware Decca Broadway's CD issue of the original London cast recording of Bye, Bye Birdie. logo

Foreign cast albums of Broadway musicals are prized by a subset of musical theater buffs because they provide fresh perspectives on beloved shows. Though recordings of such staples as My Fair Lady in Spanish, French, Italian, and so on can be very intriguing and highly enjoyable on their own terms, British cast albums of Broadway hits are obviously more accessible to Americans who don't want to face a language barrier.

In recent years, a number of these albums have been transferred to CD; I especially treasure the London Where's Charley? because that show doesn't have an original Broadway cast recording (hereafter "OBCR"). I was vaguely aware that there existed a cast album of the London production of Bye, Bye Birdie starring Chita Rivera in an export of her Rosie role and Peter Marshall--later famous as a host of TV's Hollywood Squares--as Albert Peterson. Birdie was a pretty big hit in its time, has been produced innumerable times by school and community theater groups, and was the basis of a popular film starring Ann-Margret. When a CD transfer of the London Birdie appeared in U.S. stores on the Decca Broadway label only recently, I ran out and bought it without even bothering to ask for a reviewer's copy, wondering as I plunked down my money what had caused the delay.

Well, now I know: A great deal of the album is unlistenable, thanks (or no thanks!) to some godawful singing. This does not apply to Rivera, of course; she's as fresh, lovely, and spirited here as she is on the OBCR (now available on Sony's "Columbia Broadway" label). For that matter, there's nothing wrong with Peter Marshall's vocal instrument per se, but his delivery of the songs is so smarmy and self-conscious that he sounds like a third-rate lounge singer--or, come to think of it, like a slick, charmless game show host. Where is Dick Van Dyke when you need him?

The major offender of the London Birdie is someone named Sylvia Tysick who, as Kim MacAfee, almost never hits or sustains the right notes. This appalling performance may make you wonder if the woman got the part because she was somebody's niece or girlfriend or mistress, or through some form of blackmail; whatever the explanation for her casting, the dreaded Tysick virus apparently spread like wildfire among the rest of the cast. The kids sing horribly sharp in "The Telephone Hour"--as compared to the kids on the Broadway album, who only seem to sing sharp in order to skillfully indicate brash youth. Unbearable noises also come from Kenneth Nash as Kim's little brother, Randolph.

Marty Wilde sings well in the title role of Conrad Birdie but, even here, there is a caveat. Though Wilde performs persuasively in his own style, he doesn't sound anything like Elvis Presley--which is kind of a problem, since Birdie is meant to be played as a takeoff on that icon. No one expects or wants an Elvis impersonator in the part, but any Birdie worth his salt should at least indicate The King's vocal mannerisms. This is the logical route taken by Dick Gautier on the OBCR, Jesse Pearson in the Birdie film, and Marc Kudisch in the TV movie version that also starred Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams.

Aside from the big, black marks noted above, Decca Broadway's CD of the London Birdie suffers from variable sound quality. Some of the cuts sound great in full, solid stereo while others display plenty of tape hiss in low-volume passages and/or significant distortion during louder moments. The members of the backup quartet in "Baby, Talk to Me" are miked so distantly that they can hardly be heard. (Too bad this isn't the case with Sylvia Tysick's vocals.) Also, for some strange reason, the "Put on a Happy Face" number is in mono; it sounds as if one of the stereo tracks was lost or damaged and what we're hearing is the other track in isolation. Weird!

Originally released in the U.K. in September, 1961 as Philips SABL 205 and (briefly, I assume) in the U.S. in October, 1963 as Mercury/Wing SRW 17000, the London Birdie is largely worthless--except, perhaps, as proof that even a high profile, professional production of a musical can go horribly wrong. I've always had negative feelings about the use of Napster and other methods of obtaining music without paying for it, but this album is a persuasive argument for selective piracy. Chita Rivera's numbers are well worth listening to, as you might expect. On the other hand, she sounds basically the same as she does on the OBCR--so you should just go out and buy that terrific CD if, by chance, you don't already own it.

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