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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Birdie’ Soars on Dancing of Tommy Tune

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One does not go to “Bye Bye Birdie” at Copley Symphony Hall to see “Bye Bye Birdie.”

One goes to see Tommy Tune dance.

And dance the nine-time Tony-award winner does. Wonderfully and gracefully as his lank and loose 6-foot-6 1/2 body swoops, swirls, taps and makes the stage his own. And to top it off, he is supported by an impeccable production.

It’s hard to believe Tune is 53. He doesn’t look a day over the 39 his character, rock managerAlbert Peterson, purports to be.

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“Bye Bye Birdie,” through Saturday, is a gently humorous, idealized confection of small town American life that won a Tony for best musical in 1960. Back then, the story of the mayhem that ensues when teen-age singing idol, Conrad Birdie, gets drafted, provided a timely take-off on the American rock ‘n’ roll craze and the raucous reaction of teen-agers when Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army.

Today, this latest in the Nederlander Organization’s Playgoers series just offers a quaint look at a world that, if it really existed, has certainly passed us by. A world where sexual rebellion meant kissing someone who wasn’t your steady, where teen-age rebellion meant staying out past your bedtime, and a woman’s success was measured solely by whom she married.

Gene Saks’ direction is light and deft, and wisely does not try to stretch the taffy beyond the breaking point. He seems to understand that this isn’t “Death of a Salesman.” The only suspense in this musical is when the audience will get to see Tune dance. (In “Put on a Happy Face,” “Rosie,” and a new song written by the original musical team especially for him, “Take a Giant Step.”) The surprise twists are the talents of the supporting cast, which are considerable. And, if there is any poignant residue to this lively, high-stepping escapist entertainment, it lies in reflections of how the world has changed.

Certainly no one would mistake the sweet 1959 Sweet Apple, Ohio, setting of “Bye Bye Birdie” for any city in the United States now.

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Tune plays Birdie’s manager, Albert Peterson, who sees his career and financial well-being flashing before his eyes with Birdie’s induction. His secretary, Rose (Lenora Nemetz), who is really the brains behind the operation, comes up with the idea of having Birdie (Marc Kudisch) sing a last song to a randomly chosen female fan whom he will then kiss. Her plan is that the song, which Albert will write, “One Last Kiss,” will become a smash hit, allowing Albert to clear his debts, marry Rosie and become an English teacher.

Problems ensue when the fan, Kim MacAfee (Susan Egan) becomes engaged to Hugo Peabody (Steve Zahn) who doesn’t want his girl kissing anybody. And Albert’s mom, the overbearing Mae Peterson (Marilyn Cooper) doesn’t want Albert kissing anybody (specifically Rosie). And Birdie is determined to do some kissing to somebody before going into the Army.

Nemetz provides a vibrant singing and dancing partner for Tune as Rosie; her deep voice also gives the womanly contrast to the girlish Kim, played by Susan Egan. Egan is so good as Kim that her soaring voice and sweet, unself-conscious demeanor actually makes one forget the very sexy Ann Margret, who played the part in the movie version.

Marc Kudisch throws off sparks as a hot Birdie who radiates just the right touch of self-deprecation--as if he knows how crazy all this craziness he generates is. Marilyn Cooper is a funny Mae, ready to lay her head in an oven at a moment’s notice if that will get her Sonny Boy’s guilt juices going.

The new addition to the score, “Take a Giant Step,” lacks the gentle irony of the other songs, but it gives us another opportunity to see Tune dance, so who cares? The creamy Tinkertoy sets by Peter Larkin are easy on the eyes and work especially well in “The Telephone Hour” song, where all the kids in Sweet Apple are abuzz over Hugo and Kim going steady.

Robert Mackintosh’s costumes splash the sets with bright and broad colors, and Tune’s bright array of suits are a special joy here. Mackintosh’s designs, too, are at once simple and provocative (in a clean 1950s way), perfectly in tune with the needs of Edmond Kresley’s swell choreography. The lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer works smoothly and effectively. The musical direction by Michael Biagi is rousing.

What this “Bye Bye Birdie” offers, in essence, is a bye bye to the real world for two hours while talented singers, dancers, designers and musicians do their best to entertain you. It also offers an opportunity to see Tune dance live. And that is an opportunity that should never be passed up lightly.

“BYE BYE BIRDIE”

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Book by Michael Stewart. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Lee Adams. Director is Gene Saks. Choreography by Edmond Kresley. Sets by Peter Larkin. Costumes by Robert Mackintosh. Lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound by Peter Fitzgerald. Musical direction by Michael Biagi. Hair by Robert DiNiro. Stage manager is David Wolfe. With Tommy Tune, Marilyn Cooper, Lenora Nemetz, Susan Egan, Dale O’Brien, Belle Calaway, Steve Zahn, Jessica Stone, Joey Hannon and Marc Kudisch. Tickets are $26-$38.50. At 8 p.m. through Saturday, with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2. At Copley Symphony Hall, 7th Avenue and B Street, San Diego, 278-TIXS.


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