SWOYERSVILLE — When Harry and Doris MacAfee, of Sweet Apple, Ohio, learn their daughter has been chosen to receive “one last kiss” from Conrad Birdie in a publicity stunt before the teen idol ships out to join the Army, mom is thrilled.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Jessica Werbin, of West Pittston, speaking in character as Doris.
Dad is decidedly less happy about this opportunity for his daughter, as actor Kevin Costley, of Plymouth, explained recently before a rehearsal of “Bye Bye, Birdie” at the Music Box Dinner Playhouse.
“She’s 15 and he’s a lout,” Costley said. But, he added, “as any father would do in this situation, I give in.”
Mr. MacAfee changes his mind about the kiss when he learns his whole family will get to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, which was a huge deal back in the 1950s.
The musical “Bye Bye Birdie” is set in 1958, director Dana Feigenblatt said, and it’s full of nostalgic fun.
“(The cast) is having poodle-skirt fittings,” she said. “They’re very into the ’50s hairstyles and saddle shoes and Keds. It’s the perfect show to get you out of the winter blues. When you hear the song ‘Put on a Happy Face,’ how can you not?”
“It will remind audiences of a time when families ate dinner together and watched television together,” Werbin said.
“I think of the show as a squeaky-clean version of ‘Grease,’” Feigenblatt said.
Still, 15-year-old Abby Hastings, of Dallas, pointed out, there is a hint of teen rebellion.
“Liking someone your parents don’t like” is part of the reason her character — Kim MacAfee — feels an attraction to Conrad Birdie, who is not the most polite idol ever to set teen hearts fluttering.
“I think it’s part of his natural personality” to be self-centered, 16-year-old John Toussaint, of Dallas, said, explaining he’s drawn from James Dean’s performance in “Rebel Without a Cause” for his portrayal of Birdie.
Toussaint said he’s also modeled the character on Elvis Presley, whose real-life induction into the Army reportedly inspired the script.
While the teenage characters deal with their crushes and other romantic entanglements, much of the action deals with the relationship between an older couple — Birdie’s manager, Al Peterson, and the manager’s secretary and long-term fiancee, Rosie.
“Oh, God, he’s so whiney,” Jimmy Williams, of Dunmore, said, describing Peterson as “the mama’s boy of all mama’s boys.”
“I looked at one page of the script and each of his lines started out with ‘Mama’ or ‘Mommy’ or ‘Rosie.’ He’s codependent on both of these women,” said Williams, who is reprising the role of Al after portraying him in 1996 as a student at Dunmore High School.
“He has a lot of growing to do as a character,” Williams said.
“He does have to untie that last finger” from his mother’s apron strings, said Feigenblatt, who has undertaken the role of Al’s overbearing mother in addition to directing.
At one point, long-suffering fiancee Rosie will feel she has suffered enough. She leaves Al and seeks refuge in a bar filled with men from a fraternal organization. Shimmying, strutting, dancing on tables, using a handkerchief to flirtatious advantage — Rosie will do all of that.
“I’m out of my comfort zone,” admitted Becky Phillips, of Wyoming, who even sails through a come-hither kind of cartwheel in that scene.
“That’s about the extent of my acrobatic ability,” she said with a laugh.
All in all, the musical is light-hearted and fun, Phillips said, and it should put audiences in a good mood.
“If it doesn’t make you feel happy,” she said, “maybe you’re not paying attention.”