'Bye Bye Birdie' cast features Bethel Park's Mayor Morton

He plays a mayor and is one

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In assembling a 39-member cast for The Heritage Players' musical production of "Bye Bye Birdie," Director Sharon C. Wolf needed someone to play the mayor of Sweet Apple, Ohio.

Working on the premise that theater imitates life, or vice versa, Mrs. Wolf made a cold call to Bethel Park Mayor Cliff Morton.

"I called him and said I am Sharon Wolf and we need a mayor," Mrs. Wolf said.

"I thought about it for two minutes and said yes," said Mr. Morton, 72, who knew being in a play would be fun. In 1952, he had a lead in his high school play. Ten years later, he was in a follies revue when he was an English teacher in the Bethel Park School District.

Many people who discovered the joy of live theater in their youth come back to the stage in later years. Many never leave.

A production such as "Bye Bye Birdie," which is playing at the Bethel Park Community Center through May 21, brings together young and old, novices and veterans, each bringing special qualities to the production.

The show, set in the 1950s, tells the story of Conrad Birdie, an Elvis Presley-type singer whose manager concocts one national publicity stunt before Conrad is inducted into the Army: Conrad will bid a typical American teen-age girl goodbye with an all-American kiss on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The youngest member of the cast, Jonathan "Jonny" Summers, 8, of Upper St. Clair, was full of youthful confidence.

"My dad acts, my mom acts and my mom said I have a beautiful voice," Jonathan said, explaining why he was performing in live theater.

One of the senior members of the production is Jeannette Ahlers, 76, a mother of nine from Upper St. Clair who is stage manager.

"That means I do everything," Ms. Ahlers said. "And I make people do things."

The production is the culmination of months of work, coordination, memorization and dedication.

Mrs. Wolf said rehearsals, usually twice a week, began in March. The pace picked up last week with nightly rehearsals. That's when everything comes together, or doesn't.

Jamie Scott, of Upper St. Clair, who is playing teen idol Conrad Birdie, spent the week getting comfortable in his gold lame pants and black pompadour wig, as production people rolled the sets around, making sure scene changes worked.

Dancers were trying on their blue "poodle skirts" and practicing their routines.

Mrs. Wolf's husband, Matthew Wolf, the music director, gathered everyone around the keyboard for a musical warm-up.

Throughout such a production, key people such as Jay Breckenridge perform multiple jobs. Dr. Breckenridge, 64, of Mt. Lebanon, an associate professor of theater arts at Penn State University, has been with the Heritage Players since their inception nine years ago.

In this production, he is the technical coordinator who builds and arranges sets. He also is singing in a quartet and playing a juggling Uncle Sam who appears on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

He won't go so far as to call himself a carpenter.

"I am an adapter," he said.

Even when his day is loaded down with the responsibilities of his real job, the theater is his escape.

"It is an energizing process," he said.

Mary Scabilloni, of Castle Shannon, president of the Heritage Players, stays behind the scenes and does whatever is necessary to keep the production rolling.

Last week, that meant painting sets for "Bye Bye Birdie."

"I pay $200 to have someone paint my kitchen, and I am over here painting scenery," she said.

Mrs. Wolf said community theater productions often bring together family members. In this performance, she counted seven families, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, siblings, who were playing together.

Patty Lininger, of Bethel Park, the show's choreographer, said she and her daughter, Jayna, 13, who is in chorus, love the theater. Now they have gotten her husband, Jeff, involved. He has a small role as a train conductor.

"My daughter was always in plays. Now we are trying to do plays together," she said.

"Last year, my daughter and I persuaded him to do it with us," she said.

Mrs. Wolf and her husband met at community theater. They have been married for two years and live in Observatory Hill.

In real life, Mrs. Wolf is director of Children's Festival Chorus of Pittsburgh. Her husband is a training administrator at PNC Bank. "We were engaged and we were playing in 'The Wedding from Hell,' " she joked.

The Heritage Players, a nonprofit organization formed in 1997, operates in association with the Bethel Park Recreation Department and under the umbrella of the Bethel Park Community Center. It offers three main-stage shows each year plus year-round theater workshops for children. It presents two fund-raisers, a murder mystery and a holiday show.

Times for "Bye Bye Birdie" are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and May 19 and 20. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Sunday and May 21. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and senior citizens.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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