The Kelly Critics is a joint program of the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, in which students at Kelly schools review musicals at other Kelly schools.
“The good old days”: a phrase that sends reminiscent visions of past events and simpler times through your mind. But some trends defy cultural dating and are passed between generations, never becoming old. Though set in 1958, “Bye Bye Birdie” features much of the adolescent obsession that still exists today, with cast members fawning over the hunky Conrad Birdie just as they would Justin Bieber.
“Bye Bye Birdie” is an ideal musical for the high school stage because the characters are not so different from the actors and actresses themselves. While other musicals have characters of the same age, none quite emphasize middle class America like “Bye Bye Birdie.”
The musical, which debuted in 1960, takes place in the small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio and satirizes popular culture of the day, with title man Conrad Birdie taking the place of Elvis Presley. As word spreads of Conrad’s draft notice (like Presley’s in 1957), scores of teenage girls look to see him off as he gives “One Last Kiss.” Conflict arises when Conrad Birdie fan club member Kim MacAfee, who, just having been ‘pinned’ by Hugo Peabody, is chosen to receive a kiss from Conrad before his departure. The baffled MacAfee family is left to host Conrad and his scheming agent Albert Peterson. Meanwhile, Peterson faces his own relationship problems in the form of a battle between his mother and girlfriend.
Because of its real life inspiration, the events of “Bye Bye Birdie”are more imaginable than in many musicals, making the performance easier to follow. Perhaps frantic anticipation contributed to hurried dialogue between actors, especially in Act One. This resulted in some minor stumbles on words but did not interrupt the plot.
After the first few numbers, the West Mifflin performers began to understand and apply the show’s pinnacle requirement: act natural. Characters seemed to split as either comical or conflicted.
With her posture and pitch, Shannon Havelka embodies zany Mae Peterson, a woman who will go so far as to shove herself into an oven or lie on train tracks to get her way. Similarly, the loopy Mr. MacAfee, played by Nash Porter, kept the audience in stitches with his loud childish fits. Havelka and Porter deserve high praise for their riotous performances, but the more serious roles required a higher degree of discipline.
“Bye Bye Birdie” is a unique musical since there is no singular leading lady. Rahne Mcllwain was not afraid to step up, however, and surprise the audience as a strong unforgettable Kim MacAfee. In the first act it was clear that sassy secretary Rosie Alvarez was junior Molly Worek’s first lead role. But after intermission her nerves seemed to subside and she became a crowd favorite during “Shriner’s Ballet” and solo “Spanish Rose.”
Seniors Jim Donahoe and Jesse Graham, both veterans to the stage, take on very different male leads. Donahoe plays abrasive entrepreneur and momma’s boy Peterson, while Graham acts as the leather jacket clad sensation Conrad. Graham keeps a smooth appearance and voice even in a sparkling gold jumpsuit. Donahoe, more than any of his fellow players, carries the weight of setting the standard for scenes while delivering the most lines.
Interestingly, Conrad Birdie’s presence is very limited, leaving more time for relationship discovery for the couples. But the awkwardness of Kim and Hugo’s dramatic relationship is another example of timelessness, this time for first loves.
West Mifflin’s preppy group ensemble was large enough to fill the stage for major numbers but also personal enough that audience members could quickly identify and remember individuals.
Even though it provides the basis for an entire show, the pit orchestra is all too often forgotten. The orchestra of West Mifflin’s “Bye Bye Birdie,” however, managed to bring attention upon itself subtly because of musical talent. The percussion especially kept the tempo, complimenting the actors in their best light.
It would be unfair to compare this set to West Mifflin’s wonderful Wonka world last year. But with minimum set changes and no backdrop, the set does not take viewers back in time like the costumes and dialects.
At its roots “Bye Bye Birdie” will always be a story about teenage love, but it still has many mature components that necessitate a serious cast to perform them to their fullest. Adult themes of promiscuity and family structure are interpreted remarkably well by a cast of teenagers.
When Michael Stewart penned “Bye Bye Birdie,” its purpose was to satirize the hype surrounding Elvis at the time. I am not sure he imagined that his work would still be relevant for Elvis’s fan’s grandchildren.
Reviews are edited by senior theater critic Christopher Rawson. For more high school musicals coverage, go to http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/ and scroll down.