One of the most bewildering and pervasive phenomena of the theatre is the Water Bug production, in which the director makes choices so perversely and self-evidently wrong-headed that it leaves observers wondering something that sounds very much like “Water BUG were they THINKING?”
The latest Water Bug is Robert Longbottom’s thudding regurgitation of the lighthearted 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie by Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics), the authors’ satirical look at the Elvis craze, teen heart-throbs and the teens whose hearts are throbbing, filtered through the perspective of middle-America conventionality—which it likewise lampoons.
Granted, anything starting out as a cartoon invites some high stylization—but such needs to be an organic extension of the material: you streamline the costumes; you set design with bold, perhaps minimalist strokes; you deliver bottom-line emotional essences—not avoiding real stakes, and not un-nuanced, but never naturalistically and rarely subtly. Often a tricky balance, but the helmer with commonsense and comedic instinct can usually achieve it.
Mr. Longbottom’s tin-eared, Magoo-eyed approach, though, doesn’t extend from within the material…it comments on it from without, an added layer of icing--laced with concrete. Indeed, it comments on previous productions via shocking pastels for group costumes, and 60s style Dingbat-font backgrounds to show us how silly all that was. This then becomes a comment on top of the material’s built-in comment—what Dr. Seuss immortalized as a hat on top of a hat—so overwhelming in its vulgarity that it defeats verisimilitude, obliterates charm, diminishes everything and very likely eats babies. (For a real contrast, seek out the 1995 TV movie directed by Gene Saks [not to be confused with the ’63 wide release version, which is legendarily awful for reasons I won’t get into here, yet still nowhere near as awful as the Longbottom revival]. Imperfect, perhaps, but Mr. Saks well understands the game he’s supposed to be playing, and if today’s sermon is about anything, it’s knowing the game and supporting your material’s self-evident intent and tone.)
The casting in the current revival is commensurately unsuitable: The TV-Q romantic leads (John Stamos, Gina Gershon) give touring package performances—the lower standard stuff that gets passed off for good in the boonies just for having a second-tier celebrity attached. Bill Irwin’s excruciatingly mannered turn as a teen girl’s beleaguered father (the role that made—and then defined—Paul Lynde’s career) isn’t merely ungrounded, it’s unsettlingly bizarre. (But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. With Mr. Irwin long renowned as a master clown and having proved himself a fine actor in such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Goat or: Who is Sylvia?, one can reasonably conclude that Longbottom reinforced all the bad choices, falling for the false lure of rehearsal laughter over truthful characterization.) Save Matt Doyle as a teen boyfriend, no key player carries a tune with pro sheen and Irwin simply can’t sing, period.
Put on a happy face, my butt…
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