REVIEW: Mill Town Players Serve Up Heapin’ Helping of Americana in “Bye Bye Birdie”

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“Bye Bye Birdie,” so colorfully helmed by Upstate educator, playwright, actor and director Reed Halvorson, favors solid comedic and musical performances, cheery choreography and playful building block scenic design that will command your Happy Face!

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The Mill Town Players may not be dishing out homemade apple pie at its concession stand, but Sweet Apple, Ohio never tasted as scrumptious as in their radiant revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” so eloquently helmed by Upstate educator, playwright, actor and director Reed Halvorson.

Set in a quaint town not unlike Pelzer, this Tony-winning 1960 musical by Michael Stewart, Lee Adams and Charles Strouse transports audiences to the innocence of the 1950s era of socks hops and soda jerks, when Elvis Presley was still being fitted for his crown and holding hands was considered second base.

Fans of this nostalgic show will recall the story. When rock-and-roller star Conrad Birdie (Drake King), receives his draft notice from the Army, New York agent/songwriter Albert Peterson (Mark Wiles) and girl Friday and best gal Rose Alvarez (Meredith Woodard) concoct one final publicity stunt before giving up the music business and becoming an English teacher.

The sensationalized plan is for Conrad to visit a small middle-America town and perform Albert’s new composition “One Last Kiss” live via satellite on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and plant the titular smooch on the lips of one fortunate fan club member before his military deployment.

The lucky young lady chosen at random is 15-year-old Sweet Apple chapter president Kim MacAfee, played beautifully by Miss Meris Privette, a ninth grader and already a seasoned performer (SC Children’s Theatre and Greenwood Community Theatre) in her Mill Town Players debut.

King (Will Parker in last year’s “Oklahoma!”), oozes with charisma and magnetism in every step in his original amalgam of Presley (whose draft in 1957 inspired this show) and pre-Country rocker Conway Twitty, and realistically causes a stir when both the women and men of Sweet Apple are overcome  by his charm and faint on the street during “Honestly Sincere.”

Veteran performer Rod McClendon stands out with his usual sardonic flair in the featured role of Kim’s sourpuss father, Harry MacAfee (played by Paul Lynde in the film), and gets to ponder the declining state of teenage morals in his rousing rendition of one of my favorite Birdie tunes, “Kids.”

MTP resident costumer Sissy Beck finally comes out of the wardrobe for the first time in Pelzer as Kim’s caring but affable mother Doris MacAfee, in addition to her usual fashion duties which are always executed with style.

Upstate actress Kelly Wallace plays Mae Peterson, Albert’s clingy mother who constantly derides Rosie and her Latin ethnicity. But on this evening, Stage Manager Katie Halstensgard (the matronly Gertie from “Oklahoma!”) stepped in and reveled as this condescending dame. She has, after all, played this part before earlier in her career.

The leading ladies (Woodard and Privette), deliver a resoundingly delightful and harmonious blend in “What Did I Ever See in Him?”

And this production, music directed by Tim St. Clair II, is supported by a rambunctious ensemble of “adolescent” vocalists  from their fan club chants in “We love you Conrad” to the frenetic cheers of “Go Steady” in “The Telephone Hour” sequence as the teens gossip about Hugo and Kim’s relationship milestone. Though I doubt few, if any, of these gals have actually ever used a land line telephone or a telephone directory.

Esteemed Choreographer Kimberlee Ferreira’s work shines throughout the numbers. And she especially puts stock in Woodard’s refined dancing skills in a caliente-red twirling dress in “Spanish Rose,” and her acute timing in the Shriners scene as she and the fellas contort through an impressive vaudeville Marx Brothers-esque routine on and under tables while Rosie asserts her prowess as a woman to spite Albert.

And in the show’s most famous song. “Put on a Happy Face,” Ferreira adds a few winks to the 1963 film version with Dick Van Dyke (Tony winner for the original Broadway production), Janet Leigh, and a teenage Ann-Margret , who went on to star with the real Elvis in “Viva Las Vegas.”

Kim Granner returns as scenic designer and opted for complex simplicity through a clever series of simple wooden boxes of varying sizes that are endlessly and methodically moved about like Rubik’s cubes to stand in for the many, many locations. Sometimes, we transport a thousand miles with the flip of a sign.

And her quasi-cosmic motif painted in pastel colors softly harken the LP sleeve artists and hi-fidelity music of the era, as well as the early space age. Mind you, Sputnik was launched in late 1957 just months before this story is set.

Also lending commendable performances in “Bye Bye Birdie” are Alex Robinson as Kim’s jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, Jenna Gilmer as her best friend Ursula Merkle, and Matthew Brodsky as her kid brother Randolph.

The ensemble cast features Ashley Wettlin, Lera Martha Jackson, Caroline Grimes, Andy Bennett, Julia Glenn, Ashley Wettlin, Katie Malone, Corey Jones, Andrew Schacht, Cameron Woodson, Erin Gill, Will Landrum, Michelle Malone and Edwin Divine.

The creative and technical team is comprised of Megan Smith as choreography assistant, Kim Morgan as assistant stage manager, Ashley Pittman as technical director, Tony Penna as lighting designer, Stephanie Ibbotson on the sound board, Robert Jordan on the light board, Abby Brown as scenic artist, Louis Beck as master carpenter, and Oisin Knauss and Robert Penninger on crew.

“Bye Bye Birdie” is part of the Anderson Theatre Festival and runs through August 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.

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