NOVA Center for the Performing Arts -- Billings, Montana

Gazette Review: Bye Bye Birdie
Weekly Webb: Digging deep to find relevance in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’
By Jaci Webb

There is more depth to “Bye Bye Birdie” than simply looking at it as a musical comedy to open the 2013-14 season at NOVA Center for the Performing Arts.

The production, which opened Thursday and runs through Aug. 25, features rising actors in the Venture Youth Conservatory and some of the best performers from Billings high schools.

Director Myra Nurre said she chose the musical because it represents embracing change and that’s what the last year at Venture Theatre, now NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, has been about.

But beyond the theater changing leadership and names, the young cast in “Bye Bye Birdie” is transitioning from middle school to high school and from high school to college. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1960, it was just the beginning of the social revolution. The story was inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1957. The title character, Conrad Birdie, is an idolized rock singer whose swiveling hips and crooning love songs make the teenage girls faint and their boyfriends and parents to rage against the music.

If you’ve never seen some of these young actors on stage before, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Nurre went from school to school in Billings auditioning the finest vocalists for the leading roles. She discovered singers, a few experienced actors, and sharp teenagers ready for a challenge. In all, a cast of 35 performers made the show. Nurre stood behind her middle school kids, some of whom she taught in an improv class and others she has worked with for years. She encouraged them to work hard to hold their own with the high school cast members. They rose to her challenge.

“It’s a personal journey for these kids,” Nurre said. “Some of these kids are graduating and wondering where they fit in — the adult world or the youth community. Some of them are middle school kids who are trying to be taken seriously.”

Tanner Bolin, Geneva Copeland and Kean Haunt are all veteran improvisational actors who performed as part of the Funky Bunch for years. Copeland, who portrays 15-year Kim MacAfee, played Beauty in the Billings Studio Theatre production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Kim is chosen as the girl who gets to appear on the “Ed Sullivan Show” with Conrad Birdie so he can sing his farewell song, “One Last Kiss,” and then plant one on her.

Bolin and Haunt provide the humor with Bolin’s outrageous facial expressions as Kim’s square dad and Haunt’s wide-eyed innocence as the duped boyfriend who has to compete with Conrad Birdie for his girl’s affections. Grace Iverson plays Kim’s mom.

Venture newcomers Taylor Barkac, Colbey Robinson, and Michelle Mullowney play the three other leads. Barkac, a senior at Skyview High, blew Nurre away at auditions when he showed up with his guitar and an Elvis song. He got the title role.

“It was obvious we had to turn him into Elvis, so I put him in a dance room and had him practice moving his

hips around until that felt comfortable,” Nurre said.

Robinson, a Central High graduate, plays Albert, Birdie’s conniving manager, and Mullowney, of West High, plays Albert’s girlfriend and secretary Rose. Mullowney performed in West High’s recent musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“Rose is one of my favorite characters in all of theater,’ Nurre said. “It’s been so much fun to watch Michelle become Rose.”

“Birdie” is a slice of life in the 1960s when teenagers chatted with their pals on oversized turquoise phones and girls got pinned by their steadies. It’s refreshing to see teenagers starring in a production that is primarily about teenagers.

The 1963 film featured Ann-Margret as Kim. Margret went on to date Elvis Presley after the film and performed with Elvis in “Viva Las Vegas.”

Nurre kept the dance steps simple and the music acoustic to keep the focus on the characters and their strong voices.

“It was all about the story,” Nurre said. “That was my theme about choices — everything is in service to the story.”

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Billings, MT 59103
Phone: 406-591-9535

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