BY SANDY STAGGS
Jennifer Lopez fans may have to wait until 2018 to see the Latina legend in NBC’s Live production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” but Upstate audiences will get a bite of 1950s Americana next week when the Mill Town Players take flight with the 1960 classic musical at the historic Pelzer Auditorium.
In this Tony-winning classic with a book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse, the tiny locality of Sweet Apple, Ohio is rocked to its core when rock-and-roll star Conrad Birdie comes to town to kiss a teenage fan before deploying off to boot camp.
And Sweet Apple is not unlike the quaint town of Pelzer, according to Reed Halvorson, a longtime fixture on the Upstate theatre scene who is finally making his directorial debut with the Mill Town Players.
Pelzer has the same “core family values and the will of a community to come together and that hard-working honest mentality,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think it is exactly what’s going on in Sweet Apple.”
After a five-year stint as a teacher at Woodmont High School in Piedmont, Halvorson is the Upper School Theatre Teacher at Christ Church Episcopal in Greenville. And though he has not been seen on professional theatre stages for nearly a year ‑ he last directed the hit comedy “The Explorers Club” at Centre Stage – he has good reason: the day after “Bye Bye Birdie” opens on July 14, Halvorson will take a flight to Omaha with some 200 pages of his writings to complete his Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting at the University of Nebraska.
And though he already has several projects lined up over the next year at Upstate theatres, including directing “Dearly Departed” next season at Mill Town, Halvorson is savoring the sweet taste of apple pie wholesomeness with his cast and creative team of “Bye Bye Birdie,” a show he has wanted to stage for at least six years when he was with Greenville Little Theatre with both esteemed music director Tim St. Clair II and choreographer Kimberlee Ferreira.
Halvorson said “Bye Bye Birdie,” with popular songs like “Put On a Happy Face,” “A Normal, American Boy,” “Honestly Sincere” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” is a nice and fitting summer show for Mill Town after last year’s “Oklahoma!” and the previous season’s “Grease,” and an opportunity to work with a mixture of both high school kids and veteran actors.
“It has some great energy and works in the true community theatre essence,” he adds. “It does a great job of a presenting a small town getting thrust into the national scene when a celebrity comes into town.”
The celebrity in question is none other than Conrad Birdie (a blend of Elvis Presley who was drafted in 1957 and pre-Country star Conway Twitty, and played by “Oklahoma!” star Drake King) who causes a stir and the women and men of Sweet Apple to faint when he sings and gyrates his pelvis.
Concocted as a final publicity stunt by agent/songwriter Albert Peterson (Mark Wiles) and Albert’s girlfriend/secretary Rose Alvarez (Meredith Woodard), who Halvorson refers to as the “brains” of the operation, Conrad is supposed to sing “One Last Kiss” and plant one on 15-year-old fan club member Kim MacAfee (played by Meris Privette in her Mill Town Players debut) on “The Ed Sullivan Show before going into the Army. Of course, the plan doesn’t pan out as intended.
These roles were embodied by Dick Van Dyke (Tony winner), Janet Leigh and a teenage Ann-Margret (who went on to star with the real Elvis in “Viva Las Vegas”) in the much-altered 1963 film version.
The veterans in the MTP cast include several notable names including Rod McClendon (last seen in “Let Nothing You Dismay” at Centre Stage) as Kim’s father Harry MacAfee (played by Paul Lynde in the film) and longtime Mill Town costumer Sissy Beck as Doris MacAfee.
And the great character actress Kelly Wallace plays Mae Peterson, Albert’s demanding mother, who Halvorson describes as “the nightmarish mother-in-law who won’t let her son go.”
Alex Robinson will be playing Kim’s jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody and Jenna Gilmer is her best friend Ursula Merkle. The ensemble also features Ashley Wettlin, Andy Bennett, Andrew Schacht and Cameron Woodson.
And Halvorson cautions that audiences will have an entirely new experience visually at the Pelzer Auditorium. “It’s hard to do these old classic shows [that have so many locales], but we have a very fun, unique approach,” he said referring to Kim Granner’s scenic design.
“We have gone with a set design that is implied, using acting tubes, blocks and boxes that can be re-arranged to represent all of the locations,” he added.
It has been a challenge too, he admitted, to make them sturdy enough to dance on but light enough to move around. Not to mention tracking them.
“It’s far more complicated than it looks,” he said. “But when it’s all done it’s going to be magic … a continuous two hours of magic.”
And Halvorson especially sings the praises of his former student Drake King, who went on to train at the Governor’s School for the Arts and is now on summer break at Coastal Carolina University. Also, MTP Executive Artistic Director and Founder Will Ragland has taught King since elementary school.
“It’s so exciting to see a kid with so much raw talent taking everything he has been taught and applying it,” Halvorson said. “He is a young person on the cusp of doing some really big things and we’ll all be able to say ‘I knew him when…’ ”
For his integral role as the rock star, King said he based his character’s movements as a “fusion” of both Elvis and Conway Twitty, but he is “never impersonating nor emulating” them.
He also concurs with his director on the similarities between Sweet Apple and Pelzer: “It’s a really good look at a small town when different parts of the United States collide,” he said. “And it’s nice to see that it’s not that very far off from what we have today.”
“This is a snapshot of American life, and not realism. But what father wants his normal teenage girl going out with a rock star?,” he added.
Halvorson also credits the story’s “great energy and spirit” as a draw and a lesson for Pelzer audiences: “Any town in the midst of controversy that pulls together and doesn’t lose its identity will come out stronger in the end.”
“Bye Bye Birdie” is part of the Anderson Theatre Festival and runs July 14-Aug. 6 at the Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $8-10. Call (864) 947-8000 or visit http://www.milltownplayers.org.