Students set musical debut

Originally Published April 7, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 5, 2013 at 2:04 p.m.
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Wayne Bryan

The McAfee family — Kim, played by Suzanne Atwell; Father, played by Frankie Pitts; and Lindsey Warner as Mother — sing a reverent tribute to Ed Sullivan in the Bryant High School production of Bye Bye Birdie. The cast will offer a public performance of the musical at 2 p.m. April 14.

Bye Bye Birdie is a musical about teenagers, and starting Monday night, the play will be presented by a cast of teenagers at Bryant High School.

Teacher Rachel Arrington’s senior drama students make up the core of the large cast. Arrington said she had to reach out to others in the school to cast the production.

“I asked the students who are teacher’s aides during the drama class period if they wanted to take part,” said Arrington, who is directing and producing the show. “That way, they don’t miss any academic time.”

Arrington also enlisted the Ninth Grade Girls Choir, which meets at the same hour, to join in on a musical number.

“The family sings a very reverent song about Ed Sullivan — “Hymn for Sunday Evening — Ed Sullivan,” she said. “It needs a churchlike feel, so we have the choir, and we got them robes for the number.”

Sullivan was the host of a popular television variety show that was broadcast Sunday nights on CBS for more than two decades. A telecast of the program plays a major role in the play.

The story is a satire of the American society of late 1958, including rock ’n’ roll idols, their manic teenage fans, television and the generation gap between parents and their children, who were growing up in a different modern culture.

The story is based on actual events — when Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957. In the play, set in 1958, rock star Conrad Birdie (played by Levi Brady) faces induction into the military. Birdie’s manager, songwriter Albert Peterson (Austin Wadley), devises a plan that will allow Birdie to sing Peterson’s new song, “One Last Kiss,” and give one girl from Birdie’s fan club a real kiss, live on The Ed Sullivan Show, before reporting for duty.

The girl selected to receive the kiss is Kim MacAfee (Suzanne Atwell) from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Atwell, who is a veteran of the stage with the Royal Young Players in Benton, said she watched the 1963 movie version of the play but that she is taking a different approach to the role than actress Ann-Margret did in the movie.

“In the movie, Kim was dramatic, but in a negative way,” Atwell said. “She never seemed to have fun. I think Kim should be having fun.”

Wednesday night’s rehearsal was the cast’s first with the Bryant Orchestra, so both the actors and musicians were working to coordinate the music with the action on the stage.

“We have been working on this since February,” Atwell said. “We have our lines, and we are coming along on the music.”

While Kim has just started going steady with classmate Hugo Peabody (played by Austin McEuen), she is excited about the chance to kiss the Elvis-like rock idol. When Birdie and Peterson arrive in Sweet Apple, Hugo worries that Kim likes the signer way too much, and the parents of the town are shocked when Birdie sings about being “Honestly Sincere” and causes all the teenagers to faint.

Bridge stays at the home of Kim’s family. Her father, Harry MacAfee (played by Frankie Pitts), finds the rock singer selfish and rude and does not want his daughter to kiss him, but Peterson convinces her father otherwise after telling him the kiss will happen in the MacAfee’s living room and be televised live on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Playing the father, Pitts said he is enjoying the major role.

“I have done only one other production,” he said. “That was The Nutcracker, when I was one of the children dancing.”

In the second act, Pitts sings a father’s lament about how children are much different than he was at that age. The song “Kids” was the one hit song from the show.

Pitts said being in the play has reassured him that he wants to study theater at Arkansas State University after high school.

“I want to do this,” he said.

The musical’s story is filled with subplots about love and freedom from parents, combining silly humor and social satire with some touching moments.

The Bryant High School production of Bye Bye Birdie opens Monday at Love Auditorium, in building 9 on the Bryant High School campus, and continues at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Friday at the school. A public show is set for 2 p.m. April 14. Tickets are $5 at the door.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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