Director D.H. Johnson says this weekend’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie” might be the Benson Little Theatre’s biggest show yet.
Johnson cast a total of 46 actors for the late-1950s rock ’n’ roll musical, and at one point, Johnson said, he worried the costume designer might try to kill him.
“I cast so many people in it, and then all of them have to change at least once,” he said. “We’re talking 90-plus costumes and pieces and wigs and hats and gloves and tie clips.”
The result is a vibrant, high-energy and entertaining trip back to a time when innocence was taken for granted and popular music was changing quickly. When Michael Stewart debuted the play in 1960, Johnson said it was the first Broadway musical to feature a musical score of rock ’n’ roll.
Based loosely on the life of Elvis Presley, “Bye Bye Birdie” tells the story of a teenage heartthrob, Conrad Birdie, who finds himself drafted into the Army. However, the main action centers on the love story between Birdie’s agent, Albert Peterson, and Rosie Alvarez, Albert’s secretary and forbearing girlfriend.
Rosie sees Birdie’s draft as an opportunity for Albert to exit the music business, marry her and start a more respectable life as an English teacher. Rosie hatches a plan for her beau to go out on top: Before shipping out, they will have Birdie go on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to perform a new song, “One Last Kiss,” and then he will give a real last kiss to a girl from his fan club.
In preparation for the TV appearance, the group travels to Sweet Apple, Ohio, to meet the lucky winner of the kiss, Kim MacAfee, president of the Conrad Birdie fan club. At that point, as Johnson put it, “all hell breaks loose.”
Johnson said “Bye Bye Birdie” should be a great time that will entertain the whole family.
“It’s high-energy, it’s very satirical in nature, and it doesn’t take itself seriously,” he said. “Kids will enjoy it, and parents and grandparents will remember a lot of things that they hear.”
Some of the jokes rely on references to long-forgotten popular culture, Johnson said, but that’s easy to work around.
“If you think a joke might not work, you tell the actor to just do it, say it and move,” he said. “Don’t wait, just say it and go.”
Taylor Kraft plays Rosie Alvarez, whom she describes as a “spunky, Spanish woman.” The role is a lot of fun, Kraft said, because it gives her a chance to sing, dance and transform into a completely different person.
“I get to tan and wear this wig and these big hoops,” she said.
Chita Rivera played Rosie in the original Broadway run. As a student of theater, Kraft said her goal is to encapsulate Rivera in her performance, without imitating the legendary actress.
“I want to pay homage,” Kraft said. “It’s impossible to imitate a great like that because she was just fantastic.”
‘Bye Bye Birdie’
Dates: 7:30 p.m. April 17-18; 3 p.m. April 19,
Where: W.J. Barefoot Auditorium, 303 E. Church St., Benson.