Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, and Michael Stewart's 1959 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie is the show that became an institution by spoofing Elvis Presley, another institution. Since its premiere it has infiltrated more high schools than athlete's foot and more dinner theaters than acute indigestion. It made a star of Dick Van Dyke, a Broadway legend of Chita Rivera, and a Hollywood Square of Paul Lynde. Its superb 1963 film version brilliantly patched up the original's faulty structure, humanized it, and made a luminous sex goddess of Ann-Margret.
Aside from the war in Bosnia, the hottest debate circulating in local cafes is, Which version is superior, movie or play? It is imperative for each citizen to make his own choice.
Three local theater companies will be presenting dueling Birdies. The exquisite film, of course, can be rented at any video store. Playhouse Square has joined forces with the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera to present a Birdie so schizophrenic that the audience expects to see doctors with straitjackets waiting in the wings. Director Charles Repole has concocted a production that is equal parts high school free-for-all, bus-and-truck tour, and Broadway professionalism.
In the first category are battalions of acne-rich, talent-free, stagestruck adolescents who are permitted to clog the stage like a plague of locusts during production numbers, sans anything but the most rudimentary choreography and costumes: an obvious ploy to attract the lucrative dollars of loved ones.
In the second category is the once-well-known TV star, in this case former Golden Girls star Rue McClanahan, the name to put on the marquee as a magnet to lure the diehard TV addicts out of the suburbs. As the smothering mother, she is one of the fortunate TV stars who can project a personality over the footlights. Also in this division are the likable Tinker Toys sets borrowed from the Tommy Tune tour.
At the top of the game is George Dvorsky's light-in-the-loafers but musically rich Albert, a more than adequate Dick Van Dyke lite. Spreading a reign of terror is John Sloman's fourth-rate portrayal of the all-American father, Mr. MacAfee, turning Paul Lynde's fey, platinum exasperation into bloated pouting and petulant child abuse.
As for Broadway professionalism, we have Lenora Nemetz, a pro in every sense. She has made a glorious career recreating roles originated by Chita Rivera. She has played Rose so often, it's a wonder she doesn't have thorns. She rescues the show, making every joke sparkle, every dance solo soar, and she amply demonstrates what pathos, wit, and crack timing of the old school mean. When she dances "Rosie" in a gentle soft-shoe with Dvorsky, all the amiable grace that once was Broadway miraculously blooms: There's a magic here that even the movie can't approximate.
Among the shameless abominations are the failed humor and slipshod direction (as in the Ed Sullivan Show scene), and the inexplicable cutting of that showstopping, blue-plate-special number "Spanish Rose." Oddly, Conrad Birdie, as enacted by soap opera prodigy Jeff Trachta, seems to be patterned more on Wayne Newton than on Elvis Presley.
Even though this is far from an ideal stage representation of Birdie, thanks to Nemetz, some of the original music manages to survive.
Bye Bye Birdie, through May 23 at the Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.