Upper School's Musical 'Birdie' Soars

This March, in their winter musical production of Bye Bye Birdie, Upper Schoolers fluent in Snapchat, Dancing with the Stars, the Daily Show, and music downloads gave a crash course in the language of Life Magazine, American Bandstand, the Ed Sullivan Show, and vinyl records.

A nostalgic throwback to American society in the 1950s, the Tony Award-winning Birdie was inspired by the cultural phenomenon of Elvis Presley and his being drafted into the Army in 1957. The musical's Elvis stand-in, Conrad Birdie, travels to the fictional town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, to deliver one last kiss to a young fan before departing for the military. His arrival brings romantic mayhem and family strife to the town, but all is resolved after a jealous punch is televised live on the Ed Sullivan Show. The musical was first staged in 1960 on Broadway, and became a hit film in 1963.

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"This was such a fun—and funny—show!" said director and theater arts teacher Sarah Carlin. "The lighthearted storyline was a perfect fit with the group of young actors we had, really giving them a chance to shine in memorable moments. From the ear-splitting screams of Conrad's teenage fans, to the hilarious characters of Albert's mother and Mr. MacAfee, the audience left talking about their favorite lines and singing their favorite tunes."

The catchy score, with lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse, includes numerous songs that have become standards, including "Put on a Happy Face," "A Lot of Livin' to Do," and "Kids."

But while the songs may be familiar, the 1950s-inspired choreography by Carlin and assistant director and Spanish teacher Sarah Sklarsky included dance styles that were anything but. Cast members spent weeks in after-school and weekend rehearsals mastering the steps of the "pony," twist, jitterbug, and more, with dance practice continuing all the way to the day of the first performance. At the same time, third grade teaching assistant Lara Lofdahl, reading specialist Rondi Kilham, and parent volunteers Karla Smith and Heather Schatz were tracking down vintage props and meticulously crafting period costumes that incorporated "poodle" skirts and other authentic details.

"This was truly a roller-coaster," said director Carlin, "where we all boarded the cars back in December and slowly climbed a very big hill. And then, once performances began, we accelerated downhill and everything—the dances, songs, sets, and comedy—came together incredibly quickly." 

Ninth grade cast member Abi Borggaard explained, "To be honest, a week before the performance I was a little worried. We had never used most of the sets, and we were just trying on our costumes. But sure enough we pulled it together just in time for our first performance."

Fellow ninth grader Gabe Driscoll added, "A musical like Bye Bye Birdie needs a cast that's willing to step far outside its comfort zone and be happy about it, and this cast went far beyond what anyone could have expected when we first read the script. We managed the chaos and mayhem that inevitably accompany the final rehearsals with laughter and left our inhibitions far behind us. I am immensely proud of the way this cast handled this show—with energy and humor and happiness."

While Shore's veteran ninth grade actors may have led this cast, students in sixth through eighth grades were essential in bringing Birdie to life. "This year was significant in how it brought all four Upper School grade levels together," said Carlin, "not only to sing and dance on stage, but also to construct the sets, stage-manage the performances, run lights, and call cues in our wonderful Trustey Family Theatre. From sixth grade to ninth, our students took on huge responsibilities and mastered difficult skills to produce something that truly delighted audiences."

Aiding the students were a host of behind-the-scenes adult mentors and helpers, who included musical director Jenn Boyum, set designer and longtime third grade teacher Sam Hamlin, lighting designer and Innovation Lab manager Cam McNall, sound engineer Emily Salfity, and set construction manager and math teacher Kent Vienot.

Yet, any of these adults will attest it was always about the kids. In the words of one audience member, "At Shore, you forget that these actors are middle school age; they are so talented and work so hard. It's a joy to watch." Said another, "It's remarkable to see such complex choreography, stagecraft, comedic timing, and technical elements come off so seamlessly at this level, but somehow they pull it off year after year."

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    • Conrad Birdie, Kim MacAfee, Hugo Peabody; photo: Paul Pelletier

    • Charles Hoffman as Conrad Birdie

    • Director Sarah Carlin backstage

    • Gwen Schatz as Kim MacAfee

    • Gabe Driscoll as Hugo Peabody

    • Claudia Pollock as Rose Alvarez; Alex Oder as Albert Peterson

    • Ava D'Ambrosio as the scene-stealing Mrs. Peterson

    • The cast in "Telephone Hour"

    • Vintage costumes by Lara Lofdahl and Rondi Kilham