For most people, "Bye Bye Birdie" probably wasn't one of the shows on the Manatee Players season schedule that stood out as a must-see. Even the people involved in the upcoming production will admit to that.
"This is one of those show that kind of gets a bad rap," said Michael DeMocko, "because a lot of high schools do it."
It's also, at least on the surface, lightweight and even fluffy.
"But actually, there's a lot of nuance to it," DeMocko said.
DeMocko plays Albert Patterson ("better known as the Dick Van Dyke character," he said) in the Manatee Players production, which opens today at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
Whether or not "Birdie" is lightweight, there's no getting around the fact that it now feels like a period piece, a look at youth culture in a very specific time rock music was young and innocent, teenagers saw their friends and idols get drafted into the Army, and everyone of every age watched "The Ed Sullivan Show" every Sunday.
"It's definitely dated," said director Cory Boyas. "But it's a fun show. It's kind of like a comfortable sweater for musical theater enthusiasts." That makes for some challenges. Boyas said.
"People come to this and they have some preconceived notions of what the show is," he said. "Either they've done it or they know someone who's done it or they've seen the movie." The stage musical and the movie version are significantly different, Boyas said. More people have seen the movie than the stage show, so it can be difficult to give people the kind of show they expect. The stage version has several songs that aren't in the movie, some minor characters in the stage version are more significant in the movie, and the movie eliminated an element of racism that was in the original stage production. (Albert is in love with Rosie DeLeon. His mother disapproves, partly because Rosie is Hispanic. On Broadway, Rosie was played by Chita Rivera; the film cast Janet Leigh, who is very obviously not Hispanic.)
The substance takes a back seat to the fun, though, and Boyas says his production is deliberately over-the-top.
The story has to do with teen idol Conrad Birdie (patterned after Elvis Presley, though the name was inspired by Conway Twitty) who gets drafted into the Army. As a publicity stunt, he picks a female fan to kiss goodbye on national television.
The show is full of great songs by lyricist Lee Adams and composer Charles Strouse, who are also known for "Annie" and "Applause." Among the best-known numbers are "Kids," "A Lot of Livin' to Do," "The Telephone Hour" and "Hymn for a Sunday Evening."
For DeMocko, the role of Albert, Birdie's manager, has challenges because the role of Albert is so firmly associated with Van Dyke. His turn in the Broadway production helped make him a star, and the film came out at the peak of his TV show's popularity, cementing his reputation as a great comedian and song-and-dance man. But Albert, at least in the stage musical, is not a completely nice guy.
"Albert, he's a pretty complex character and he's nothing at all like me," DeMocko said. "And Dick Van Dyke is a hero of mine. It's daunting to play a role that he made famous. And for me, one of the challenges is to play true to the character, and still make him a likeable character."
Details: March 17-April 3, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.