Mount Airy High School’s production of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” this Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m is the latest addition to a long history of successful theater performances by Mount Airy High School students.
Gena Ray, who teaches multiple classes at the high school including theater, music appreciation and chorus, said she was excited to introduce the musical to her theater arts students because it is “one of those musicals all people love.”
The comedic musical with a bit of satire is set in the late 1950s in a small town called Sweet Apple. It tells the story of a rock and roll singer who is about to be drafted into the military, but first travels to Sweet Apple, Ohio, for a goodbye kiss promotion, which causes tremendous reactions from the town.
The story was inspired by Elvis Presley’s 1958 draft into the Army and features a similar character, Conrad Birdie. It is also a story of Conrad’s agent Albert, who longs to be an English teacher, and his faithful secretary Rosie, as well as the teenage girl who is selected for the final kiss, Kim MacAffee.
The situations in the play are appealing to a wide audience, with plot lines about overbearing and interfering parents who don’t understand the younger generations, teenage idols, the ins and outs of the music business, and of course, a love story.
Ray said the musical features “interesting characters who have real depth and dimension” and a cast of high school students who are highly talented and dedicated to the performing arts on many levels.
Before practice and auditions, Ray watched the “Bye Bye Birdie” film from the 1960s and discussed the differences between the movie and the musical, and also had a history lesson about the situations in the musical and the inspiration behind the story.
She said a couple of the students were not that excited when they were first presented with the idea of performing “Bye Bye Birdie,” but they have since grown to love it, because of the “great music” that is a part of the show.
“One of my main criteria I use when choosing a production is it has to have good music, and this one really does. Everyone who attends will walk away with the songs going through their heads. They are catchy and fun,” said Ray.
Those involved in the play went through an audition process, each performing a monologue or scene as well as a song. Ray did not require any dance numbers in auditions, but encouraged the students to incorporate movement into their auditions.
“I know the kids so well because I teach them, but they still surprise me in auditions with their skills.
“I commend the kids, because anyone who is willing to give eight hours on a Saturday and seven hours on a Sunday to a high school theater practice, that is impressive,” said Ray, referring to the demanding practice schedule, which requires after-school practices, some evening practices, and weekend practices during the weeks that led up to this weekend’s show.
Ray said that the long practices are not just a run-through of the production, although that is included — it is a time to work on sets, lighting, costumes, props, and many other important behind-the-scenes tasks. A majority of that work is carried out by the students, but some people from outside came in to help, including Mark Brown, who helped with sound, and 10-year-old Connor Lindsley, a Mount Airy City Schools student who stars as Kim McAffee’s little brother, Randolph.
“It’s the fun of doing it — they all love being together and acting. I cannot get over how professional they are for a high school group. It is impressive,” remarked Ray.
Ray said one of the most memorable songs is “The Telephone Hour,” which features 18 retro telephones and all of the Sweet Apple teenagers catching up on the latest gossip.
Mount Airy High School had four theater performances this school year, including “The Glass Menagerie,” “Charlie Brown Christmas” and two class performances, as well as “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Peyton Marion, a junior who plays the female lead Rosie Alvarez, said she was familiar with the musical before her involvement. Marion’s favorite song from the show is “One Boy,” which the character Kim sings to her boyfriend Hugo.
Oren Bailey, senior at Mount Airy High School and future N.C. State environmental science major, plays the role of Albert Peterson. He said he enjoys being a part of the high school’s theater productions because he “can see a different side” to the people he knows so well from school. “We all know each other fairly well, so when they act, they are playing a different role than they take on in life,” said Bailey.
Bailey also said “Bye Bye Birdie” is appealing to many, even those who do not enjoy traditional musicals. “There are many elements that are satirical of musicals in general.” Ray nodded in agreement and said that Conrad Birdie’s “big number makes fun of how musicals always break into song.”
Anna Hiatt, who plays Kim MacAfee, said she is enjoying the experience because of the great cast and atmosphere in the class.
Several of the students involved in the production plan to continue with performing arts after they leave high school, both in their careers and extracurricular activities.
Oren Bailey said although he plans to pursue a degree in environmental engineering, he will always make the arts a part of his life. Oren is in a band with fellow students and actors Sam Brown and Blake Hensley called Going Dutch.
Blake Hensley and Jack Marion would like to go into broadcast journalism and Marion also would like to explore commercial music.
Peyton Marion said she has been accepted to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts high school music program, which she will begin in the fall.
Marion said that the entire cast is grateful to Gena Ray’s dedication. “Mrs. Ray is literally here all the time and we couldn’t do it without her.”
The cast includes Oren Bailey, Peyton Marion, Anna Hiatt, Blake Hensley, Sam Brown, Emily Lowe, Conner Lindsley, Emily Hiatt, Jack Marion, Andrew Creech, Abby Hagwood, Omar Calvillo, Rachel Ray, Rachel Evans, Makayla Benfield, Abby Brady, Mindy Benfield, Sara Pequeno, Haylee Tompkins, Claire Draughn, Parley Gentry, Daniel Hatcher, Erica Carlisle, Bree Tomchick, Andrew Creech, Eryn Wood, Beth Overfelt, Christian Cail, John Hardy, Sam Hinson, Kent Hodges, Daylon Shaw, Mason Timmerman and Jack Welch.
A history of dramatic arts
“Bye Bye Birdie” was performed at Mount Airy High School 25 years ago, as part of an effort by former English teacher Melanie Hudson to bring back the drama program, which “was once an envy of every other high school in the region,” according to Brack Llewellyn, who assisted Hudson with the production.
The envied drama program Llewellyn referred to was at its peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the Mount Airy High School Drama Club (named D’COMAHS by its members) performed large productions, most with live music.
The D’COMAHS performed “Bye Bye Birdie” 40 years ago at Mount Airy High School, in February of 1973.
Gena Ray said she was aware of the long history of drama and theater productions at the high school and in the community and said she feels lucky to be one of the only schools in the county with a full theater, complete with stage and lighting.
“I became aware quickly because so many community people came up to me and told me about theater productions they were involved with through the years. Their involvement really made an impression on them and now we are continuing that tradition. It makes all the difference in the world to have this type of experience for these students, and we hope everyone will come out and support them this weekend.”
The performances of “Bye Bye Birdie” will be at the Mount Airy High School auditorium on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the high school at any time between now and prior to the weekend’s performances.
Reach Jessica Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1933.