Manitoulin Secondary production of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ a fly-away hit

The teens of Sweet Apple, Ohio demonstrate the gossip chain when Kim McAfee ‘gets pinned’ by Hugo Peabody in their number ‘The Telephone Hour.’ photo by Alicia McCutcheon

M’CHIGEENG – Manitoulin Secondary School continues to wow audiences with more amazing talent and exceptional production quality in its premiere run of ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ a nostalgic musical comedy set in 1958 and loosely based on the Elvis Presley phenomenon. The story has been seen on stage, at the movies and many times in parody—Mad Men, The Simpsons and Friends are a few of the popular television shows that have referenced the play. 

Conrad Birdie, played here by Sam Howson, is a young rock star who has just been drafted into the United States Army. Sam aptly plays Conrad as a man of few words, using a swagger and a smile to convey the swoon-inducing heartthrob. It’s evident the young icon may be just a little tired of the hype and just wants to have a good time before he enters the army.

Conrad’s agent Albert Peterson (Ethan Theijsmeijer), president of the Almaelou Music Corporation, is at the heart of the comic action as he faces financial disaster with the loss of Conrad to the army while contending with his determined and capable secretary/girlfriend, Rosie Alvarez (Abbie Harper) and a controlling mother beautifully played by Jocelyn Kuntsi, who threatened to steal the show with her over-the-top portrayal of an overbearing but long-suffering mother.

The long-suffering Rosie hands Albert her resignation. She wants Albert to stop being a mama’s boy. Rosie dreams of being an English teacher’s wife but is tired of waiting for it to happen. When she learns of Albert’s dilemma, the ever resourceful Rosie devises a publicity stunt where Conrad will give a last public kiss to a randomly chosen high school girl. 

Nothing goes as planned and the small town of Sweet Apple, Ohio is completely unprepared for the release of hormones that ensues. Of course, this is what makes the play so much fun.

Kim McAfee (Natalia Bell) is the 15-year-old president of the Conrad Birdie Fan Club who is chosen to receive the kiss. The audience is introduced to Kim as she sweeps downstairs and boldly addresses her parents by name, making them painfully aware of her budding maturity. Natalia charmingly portrays a girl on the verge of womanhood who is both sophisticated and innocent. This is even more evident as she joins the squealing throng of fan girls who rush to catch a glimpse of Conrad Birdie.

Conrad Birdie (Sam Howson), right, lets producer Albert Peterson (Ethan Theijsmeijer) know that he’s tired of being cooped up and wants to “live.”

Conrad struts and gyrates as girls and women fan themselves while the local boys look on in dismay. Even the mayor’s wife is not immune to fainting in Conrad’s presence. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo Peabody (Jordan Goddard), is especially fired up with jealousy.

Conrad and his entourage take up residence at the McAfee home. Kim’s father Harry, played by Maggie Chapman, is another underrated scene stealer as she comically portrays a narrow minded and prudish ‘50s husband and father who only thinks he is in control. 

In one scene, Harry watches with disbelief as Kim removes his breakfast dishes as fast as his wife Doris (Alexandria Lewis) places them on the table. Finally, he explodes. “Last night I gave up my room to a guest who repeatedly referred to me as ‘Fats’,” he raged. “Telephone calls were made on my phone to New York, Chicago, Fairbanks, Alaska and Hong Kong. I slept in a camp cot with my feet in the fireplace and my head in an ashtray. Outside my window three harpies shrieked, ‘We love you, Conrad’ four thousand seven hundred and twenty three times. And now I have lost my two fried eggs!”

He is quickly subdued with the promise of a family appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

As the story progresses, Conrad stirs up longings that prompt teens to run away. Mrs. Peterson shows up with a ditzy showbiz wannabe to replace Rosie. Albert attempts to stand up to his mother and fails miserably. Hugo Peabody punches Conrad and knocks him unconscious.

Conrad Birdie (Sam Howson) gains the key to Sweet Apple, Ohio in a publicity stunt before being shipped off to war.

Rosie packs a suitcase and wanders down to Maude’s, a local watering hole, where she hilariously flails around, dancing as “Spanish Rose.” Albert tells his mother to leave and runs after Rosie. Kim runs off with Conrad, who attempts to seduce her. The McAffees search the town in their pajamas looking for Kim. All the while, the Conrad Birdie Fan Club has been following along singing, “We love you, Conrad.” 

In the end, Mrs. Peterson leaves Albert to Rosie with a parting shot: “You’re like your father. You’d marry anything.” Ethan proved himself a master of facial expressions and especially so as he considered that. 

Conrad gets on the train that will deliver him to the army, with his ever-enthusiastic fans—somewhat disturbingly—singing and following closely behind. (This perhaps still resounds today, when celebrities continue to be followed with an often cult-like intensity.)

Rosie (Abbie Harper, standing) lets Mrs. Peterson (Jocelyn Kuntsi) know that she will soon be her daughter-in-law. photos by Lori Thompson

Albert and Rosie happily head off to Pumpkin Falls, Iowa, where Albert has accepted a teaching job and takes her as a wife.

The amount of work that went into the production of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and musical direction was evident, while the live band certainly captured the feeling of the era and contributed to the overall enjoyment of this production. Multi-talented performers and offstage dialogue kept the audience entertained. MSS continues to outperform itself year over year.