'Birdie' paints BKW with colors of youth
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
The Pony: The 1960s dance is performed by students, from left, Amanda Judge, Mackenzie Weiler, and Audrey Goodemote, onstage during the April 1 dress rehearsal of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo spring musical, Bye Bye Birdie. A high-school staple, Birdie was performed on Broadway in 1960 and won a Tony Award for best musical in 1961.
The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
A gap to mend: The uneasiness of growing up is evident on Berne-Knox-Westerlo student Alex Chauvot’s face, playing Albert Peterson as he is reminded, in "An English Teacher," of his long tenure in the music business. Bye Bye Birdie, performed this weekend in the BKW secondary school, deals with the opposing forces of a generation gap, set in the 1950s when rockabilly was a force for teenage empowerment.
BERNE — A perennial favorite as it is, Bye Bye Birdie no longer uses the styles of its time. Rockabilly isn’t on the radio. Television screens of dancing peers no longer captivate teenage attention at scheduled hours.
Young people do still have to square their futures with the mores around them. The 1950s and ‘60s were a period when teens, as a post-war boom of the population, craved freedom.
The gap between generations hangs over the teenage characters in Birdie, the name of a character inspired by popular musicians of the time.
After rehearsing nearly every weekday for several months, a cast of 80 Berne-Knox-Westerlo students will perform Bye Bye Birdie this weekend at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 4 and 5, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 6.
The musical, which was first staged in 1960, was written by Michael Stewart, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams. The storyline followed the loose-hipped Elvis Presley being inducted into the tight ranks of the Army.
Nick Nagengast, in the title role, plays a popular singer who is supposed to give a final performance before entering the military. The publicity act, where he is to kiss a lucky girl live on The Ed Sullivan Show, is organized by Albert Peterson, who grapples with the idea of growing up.
In the first act, Peterson, played by senior Alex Chauvot, is reminded by his secretary and girlfriend, Rose Alvarez, that he’s been in the music business for eight years. In “An English Teacher,” Julie Dean, as Alvarez, sings in a bright red dress and a tall black wig to prod Peterson.
The girl chosen for a kiss with Birdie is Kim MacAfee, played by Shannon Quay in a bright pink top and a blue jumper, though she is going steady with Hugo Peabody.
In Ohio, where Birdie is scheduled to perform and MacAfee is from, the teenage girls idolize him and their parents deplore him.
In his song, “Honestly Sincere,” Birdie describes the truth in youthful intuition.
“When I sing about a tree, I really feel that tree!,” he sings. “When I sing about a girl, I really feel that girl. I mean, I really feel sincere!”
Nagengast said he has a similar method for entering Birdie’s mind.
“What I try and do, I guess, is to make the faces he’d make,” Nagengast said of Birdie. “That kind of half smile, the look where you appear as if you are the figure everyone’s looking up to. That, or, if you sit there and close your eyes, if you picture what you want to look like, it’ll help you for sure to be that character.”
Nagengast’s favorite song to perform is “Honestly Sincere.” The role of Birdie gives him the opportunity to enter a different character, he said, because Birdie has so much energy and bravado. Nagengast wears a leather jacket with metal studs and leather pants he bought just for the musical. “It kind of gives it its own spin to it, rather than the shiny gold suit,” he said, referring to Presley’s famous jacket.
Quay compared Birdie to Justin Bieber. Though she plays a girl caught in a love triangle, Quay said she sees Alvarez and Peterson as the main romantic relationship.
After Birdie performs “Honestly Sincere,” Peterson’s mother tries to set him up with a new secretary, Gloria Rasputin, a woman she approves of. The jealousy between Peabody and Birdie, and also between Alvarez and Rasputin gives the publicity trip enough momentum that the characters are forced to question what they really want.
“Albert wants to be the rich one that’s behind Conrad, but Rosie is always there,” Nagengast said.
Nagengast himself is aspiring to be an actor. After high school, though, he plans to major in business or math in college, with a minor in acting or film. He’s interested in investing and hopes to keep active onstage.
“I’m probably eventually going to have to hit a point where it’s, ‘Do I pursue an acting career…and go out and try to get that career I dream of, or settle, or go for a different career path that’s attainable by going to college and getting a different kind of degree. I guess that’s the decision I’m going to have to make.”
All of the lead actors said they’ve gained more confidence after being on stage. They sang with each other, some solos, around director Coriellen Travis’s piano and grew louder over time.
Quay, who wants to study early-childhood education in college, said the musical, her first with such a lead role, has put her responsibilities in her lap.
“You can’t just go out there and wing it, you have a plan,” she said, relating the stage to teaching.
Regardless of the effect, Quay has to pretend to be older, modifying her voice as she’s singing, “How Lovely to be a Woman.” She broadens her mouth vertically, to attain the right tone, she said.
Travis said she chose Birdie because of its high-energy music and humor. The songs mix jazz, country, and blues with the veneer of a Broadway musical and its popular dances.
The brightly colored stage set was designed, built, and painted by Travis, the district’s music director, with students and volunteers.
“I think that, with any musical, it teaches the students how to come together and work hard as a team, dedicating themselves to putting on the best production they can together,” said Travis.
Bye Bye Birdie will be performed in the auditorium of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo secondary school, at1738 Helderberg Trail, Berne, N.Y. 12023. Tickets will be $8 for adults, $7 for students and elders, and $6 for children aged 12 and under.