“Bye Bye Birdie” the all-city musical at Akron Civic Theatre

Arts / Article

Akron Civic Theatre, a Knight Arts grantee, is at it again – and nicely so. For the third time, the theater (through its Women’s Guild) will be putting on a play (as in producing it) with an all-city cast of high school students in three performances June 14-15.

The choice this year is “Bye Bye Birdie” – the teenage coming-of-age story à la the true-life incident of Elvis Presley, when he was inducted into the U.S. Army and seemingly left behind his adoring young rock and roll fans. In this take-off, the Presley character (Conrad Birdie) goes out in one last publicity stunt by going to a small Ohio town and giving a lucky teenager a kiss on the Ed Sullivan Show, for all the world to see.

Brandon Henderson as Conrad Birdie, “Bye Bye Birdie.” Photo by Dale Dong

Complications arise of course, or the musical comedy would have nowhere to go. The lucky girl, Kim MacAfee, who has been a Conrad Birdie fan, drops from the fan club because she finally going steady with a local boy, Hugo Peabody, who becomes fighting mad and jealous. The family gets involved because they want to be on the TV show too, yet have issues with Kim seeming to fall for the older Birdie. And on and on.

In true musical comedy fashion, everything works out, including the requisite wedding scene around Birdie’s press agent, Albert Peterson, who started all the commotion in the first place.

The play is carried forward by some wonderful show tunes, which, if you know them (“Put on a Happy Face,” “One Boy,” “A Lot of Living to Do,” and the trouble with “Kids” today) underlines how innocent the darker themes of jealousy, age-discrepant relationships, teen drinking and such really are in this make-believe world.

It’s a great vehicle for high school-age actors, dancers and singers to be involved in, much as Akron Civic Theatre Executive Director Howard Parr noted in a rehearsal interview. It’s a 70-plus cast show, giving lots of room for the producers to scout 19 public and private county-wide schools in search of talent.

"Bye Bye Birdie," cast. Photo by Dale Dong

“Bye Bye Birdie,” cast. Photo by Dale Dong

Akron Civic, Parr said, first produced the fun-filled “Hairspray” two years ago. Last year it took a chance on the more adult-them driven “Ragtime,” which was, Parr noted, a great show to do. This year, he said they wanted to bring “something commercially successful and fun.” “Bye Bye Birdie” sure can fill that bill. Next year, Parr is thinking that the Akron Civic Theatre will look for a musical that is “a little more contemporary.” Work on that project should start as soon as this one is finished.

Parr seems particularly proud to note the advantages for the young cast members. The high schoolers get to be involved in a totally professionally run and done play. The director (Mark Zimmerman), choreographer (Marissa Montigney) and musical director (Barbara Bellamy), are all local professional people. The University of Akron is donating rehearsal space (which Parr said makes all the difference in costs), but is also providing sets and costumes through its theater department.

But the actors and the orchestra – that is, the performers – will all be talented high school students. It is great opportunity for them to be part of this, and that is what Parr has pictured as the biggest contribution his organization can make.

It is working. During a rehearsal of a few scenes like “Telephone Hour,” which begins the show with 25 high school kids getting together on the telephone to spread the news of Kim and Hugo’s budding relationship, the young actors helped each other figure out the nuances of when and where the steps and gestures were. They paid close attention to choreographic steps and asked insightful questions to make sure they had it all nailed down.

“Bye Bye Birdie” will be performed at 2:30 p.m. (Saturday and Sunday) and 7:30 p.m. (Saturday only), June 14-15, at the Akron Civic Theatre, 182 S. Main St., Akron; 330-253-2488; www.akroncivic.com. General admission tickets are $10, with reserved seating at $20 and $25.