Everybody knows that with teenagers, they’ve got A Lot of Livin’ to Do. More than 70 cast, crew and orchestra members are doing just that by making the most of their theatrical talents in the Akron Civic Theatre’s third annual All-City Musical — the rollicking classic Bye Bye Birdie.
This satire on American society, set in 1958 primarily in Sweet Apple, Ohio, is a spoof on the real-life drafting of Elvis Presley into the Army in 1957. In this musical, winner of four Tonys, the fictitious Conrad Birdie participates in a publicity stunt to perform the song One Last Kiss just before he’s sent overseas. One lucky girl is chosen at random from Birdie’s fan club to receive his “last kiss,” which is televised on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Akron’s All-City Musical will run for three shows Saturday and Sunday. It stars Brendan Henderson of Woodridge High as the rock ’n’ roll idol Birdie; Firestone/Akron School for the Arts graduate Brandon Kline as his agent, Albert Peterson; Hallie Heffernan of Copley High as his long-suffering secretary and girlfriend, Rose Alvarez; and Michaella Waickman of Firestone/Akron School for the Arts as 15-year-old Kim McAfee, who’s singled out for Birdie’s last kiss.
Cast members hail from 15 area schools, including Kenmore, Ellet, Akron Early College, Our Lady of the Elms, Archbishop Hoban, Hudson, St. Vincent-St. Mary, Revere, Norton, Wadsworth, and Stow high schools as well as Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. Among the students from Norton — a new school on the list — is exchange student Maria Preussen of Germany, who’s an ensemble member.
Mark Zimmerman, directing the All-City show for the third year, praised leading man Henderson as rock star Birdie.
“He’s tall and handsome and a super nice kid. He’s got lots of charm. Good crooner,” he said of the recent Woodridge graduate.
Henderson, who will attend Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts in the fall, plays Birdie with a confident Elvis-style smirk as he does the Twist in the ironic Honestly Sincere.
“I’m used to being in the chorus just as a dancer. I’m excited to finally have a role where I can push my vocals,” he said at rehearsal June 4 at the University of Akron’s Sandefur Theatre.
Choreographer Marissa Montigney has adapted the Put On a Happy Face number from a soft shoe dance to a tap dance to show off one of Kline’s specialties. The recent graduate is playing two Dick Van Dyke parts in a row, after recently portraying Bert in Mary Poppins at Firestone High School.
Zimmerman said Kline is a perfect match for Van Dyke’s trademark roles: “I think Brandon is a charming young man and those parts suit him very well.”
In Birdie, Kline’s partnered with real-life competitive dance partner Heffernan as Rose, performing in her third All-City Musical.
“It’s a big dance part. In a lot of ways it’s Rose’s show. She’s ever-present,” Zimmerman said.
Rounding out the leads is soprano Waickman, who transferred to Firestone last year as a junior. “She’s great. She’s got such good instincts, and her voice is just off the charts,” Zimmerman said.
Bye Bye Birdie, performed often by schools, speaks to a much more innocent time when girls swooned over rock stars and the appearance of a celebrity in a small town could cause a media circus. Zimmerman has talked to his teen cast — growing up today in a celebrity culture where they can easily follow stars’ moves through social media — about what a huge impact sexy superstar Elvis made on the nation in the late ’50s.
“We’re so blasé about celebrity today because everybody’s a celebrity,” he said.
Through the show’s characters, the students also are learning about comic archetypes from old vaudeville days. That includes the “Jewish mother” who lays on the guilt, embodied by Albert’s mother Mae Peterson, played by Francine Parr.
Bye Bye Birdie is produced by the Civic, with the Akron Civic Theatre Women’s Guild as presenting sponsor. The project’s purpose is to bring kids together from Akron-area schools, provide them with performance opportunities they might not otherwise have at high production values, offer students from well-established school theater programs a chance to build on their experience, and enable all to bring what they’ve learned in the All-City Musical back to their own schools.
At a recent rehearsal, Valerie Renner of the Akron Civic Theatre talked about music as a universal language that brings All-City Musical kids together for new friendships. Those include 21 students in the jazz band-style orchestra, led by conductor Gary Davis and accompanied by music director Barbara Bellamy of Kenmore High School on piano.
“We’re trying to do the highest-level show that we can with young people who are coming from many different places and many different levels,” said Davis, who plays second trumpet for the Akron Symphony Orchestra.
Director Zimmerman said he appreciates Bye Bye Birdie’s classic tunes and sly humor.
“It’s kind of an honor and a privilege to do it,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to direct in this house on this big stage with a professional staff and professional stagehands, and to share that experience with students who have a love for theater and a love for performance and are looking for additional performance opportunities.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.