Kelrik Productions’ “Bye Bye Birdie” has been a trip
back in time for director Erik Austin and his large cast, mostly teenagers.
“It’s taken a lot of explaining, Austin said. “It was a time I really didn’t know.”
Too young to remember the era himself, he selected the musical on the basis of feedback from colleagues and patrons. It’s a popular show because of its lively, upbeat quality, he said.
“Bye Bye Birdie” earned four Tony Awards after it opened on Broadway in 1960. Set in the ’50s, it celebrated the birth of rock ’n’ roll and was the first Broadway musical to use actual teenagers to fill teen roles.
It’s filled with dance and good songs, but reprises an era that is alien to today’s teens. It was a time when puberty was a bad word, racism was part of life, young men were drafted into the Army and everyone watched the Ed Sullivan show on Sunday night, but Elvis could be shown only from the waist up.
Conrad Birdie (patterned after Elvis) has been drafted. His agent, Albert Peterson, is urged by his secretary- girlfriend Rosie Alvarez to set up a final publicity stunt. Birdie will travel to the Midwest town of Sweet Apple and kiss a member of his fan club goodbye — the event to be filmed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The resulting publicity will make Birdie’s new song, “One Last Kiss,” such a success that Albert and Rosie can quit the music business, get married and settle down.
The chosen fan, Kim Macafee, has just announced that she is going steady with a boy named Hugo (who’s not so happy about the kiss). Nevertheless, the town of Sweet Apple goes nuts over Birdie’s visit.
That may all sound a bit corny these days, but it was cutting edge at the time.
There are more than 35 teens and
adults in the Kelrik cast and ensemble. The two movie versions of the show cast actors in their 30s rather than teenagers in the leading teen roles, but Austin sees this as a chance to showcase some of the many students in the area coming out of good drama departments in the schools.
“Because ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ is mostly a story about teenagers, it’s a particularly good show for young performers,” he said. “It’s gratifying to be able to offer such a great performance opportunity to up and coming local talent.”
There is a lot of dancing, and the songs that have endured include “Put on a Happy Face” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” Joe Ogren plays Conrad Birdie, and is also the choreographer. Matt Ambrose plays the promoter Albert, and Heather Malcolm plays Rosie. Ariana Shakibnia is fan Kim, who wins the kiss, and Chris Dixon is her boyfriend.
Austin said he has enjoyed exploring the era with his cast, costuming the girls with longish skirts and flip hairdos, and explaining how important Ed Sullivan was to both television and the beginning of the rock era.
“It’s a comic look at a simpler time, and it has a positive energy,” he said. “It makes me happy.”
Some of the dialogue is dated and references may go over the heads of younger members of the audience, Austin added. Albert’s mother doesn’t approve of Rosie because her last name is Hispanic, and there are other scenes where racism is apparent, but the director didn’t change anything.
“I left it like it was — its dated character creates the essence of the show. That’s how it was, and people will remember that era, it appeals to so many generations.”
The director said the biggest challenge was getting into the rhythm of the dialogue of the time.
“It’s different from how we speak,” he said.
But it was easy to get this generation of teens to relate to the story, he noted. “The themes are still remarkably relevant today, given our fascination with paparazzi and pop icons.”