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TV Reviews : Vanessa Williams Sizzles but ‘Birdie’ Fizzles

ABC’s revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” arrives Sunday with its swooning teens, crinolines, bobby socks and modest pleasures largely intact.

So thin are those pleasures, though, that an attempt to prolong them here fails--despite sizzling work by Vanessa Williams in a key role--and they end well before the show does. Nor is it helpful that “Birdie” dispenses with most of its highest-octane, more-tuneful numbers fairly early, leaving yawns for last.

Because of its bow to youthful verve, “Birdie” since its inception has been to high school senior plays what Neil Simon has been to dinner theater. First came the Broadway musical in 1960, then the theatrical movie in 1963, then the Broadway revival in 1991, and now this TV “Birdie.” It boasts five more songs (from original composer and lyricist Charles Strouse and Lee Adams) and 19 more minutes, excluding commercials, than were contained in the movie, which was nothing much to sing about.

Even with some updating of lyrics and an integrated cast--you get blacks, Asians and even one Hasidic Jew--veteran stage director Gene Saks can’t blow away all the must from “Birdie.”

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Set in Split Level, U.S.A., the foamy story finds a gyrating, Elvis-like teen idol named Conrad Birdie (Marc Kudisch)--so magnetic that his groupies nearly faint even when he belches--visiting an All-American small town in a publicity stunt that has the star-struck locals in a frenzy. Also present are Birdie’s manager, Albert (Jason Alexander), Albert’s assistant and girlfriend, Rosie (Williams), and Albert’s pestering mother (Tyne Daly).

The score has enough juice to overcome the show’s more troublesome characters and their antique attitudes. More problematic is some of the casting. If the movie’s Ann-Margret was too much the breathy, voluptuous dish as a local teen selected to receive “one last kiss” from Conrad before his induction into the Army, Chynna Phillips is so pastel and lacking in presence that she’s barely noticeable. And missing in George Wendt is the showy energy that the late Paul Lynde gave the lucky girl’s bewildered dad in both the movie and the original stage play.

Alexander is all right as Albert, despite his work opposite Williams making for one of the more exotic TV pairings of the season. Especially since Williams is so stunning and such a commanding, human hot-button as Rosie--to say nothing of her dynamic voice--that when she’s on camera the TV picture seems to tilt her way.

If Conrad gave her one last kiss, he’d be the one swooning.

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* “Bye Bye Birdie” airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC (Channels 7, 3).


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