LEESBURG -- As America transitioned from the button-down 1050s to the radical 1960s, Rock 'n' Roll was still in its infancy. But there were teen idols like Elvis Presley, and the fan frenzy that he and other performers were already generating bubbled up up in a spirited Broadway show and 1963 movie -- "Bye Bye Birdie."
A half-century later, some ambitious students and adults are attempting to bottle that same energy up for a performance that opens Friday at Clay Auditorium at lee County high School.
The musical starts at 7 p.m. Friday as Lee High's award-winning Palladium Players opens its stage to members of the community -- in fact, people from four counties will be performing in the cast -- for its annual town-and-gown production that runs through March 27.
"We have a motto," Palladium Players Director Dotty Davis said, "and it's always been our motto that we don't do high school musicals. We expect a lot out of our kids and our adults who participate. The spring musical is the one time we open our doors and anybody and everybody to audition, so we have kids from other schools. We have a couple of sisters from up in Americus that are in our program. And it gives them a chance to do something they may not have at their school or they may not have the ability to do yet at their school."
The plot is familiar to many. Similar to Elvis' induction into the Army, a teen idol named Conrad Birdie (based on Elvis' rock rival at the time -- Conway Twitty) has been drafted into military service and will kiss one final fan before his deployment. That girl turns out to be Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio.
The story hit the stage in 1960 with Dick Van Dyke and Cheeta Rivera. Van Dyke reprised his role as Albert F. Peterson in the 1963 film with Janet Leigh stepping into the Rivera role. The film was remade for TV in 1995 with Jason Alexander of "Seinfeld" fame and Vanessa Williams playing those parts.
Davis said many of the younger members of the cast remember Van Dyke for his "Diagnosis Murder" series than his comedy and dancing.
"The funny thing is, a lot of the high school kids are not familiar with the show ("Bye Bye Birdie"). It's not one that you find on TBS," Davis said. "But they all know Elvis. And the funny thing about it is, they tried to cast Conway Twitty, who was a rocker at the time, and that's where they got Conrad Birdie from. So the kids get a big kick out of finding out about the musical and finding out about the style. Most kids now think about Dick Van Dyke, and they think about the murder mysteries. They have no idea he was a song-and-dance man."
Davis and her husband, Robby Davis, who serves as the tech director for the production, traveled to New York City with some students and managed to get a look at the Broadway revival of the show that starred John Stamos and Bill Irwin. "We bought the last two tickets to see it the closing week on Broadway so we could get a brand new look at it," she said. "We had seen the old movie. And we'd seen the new movie, and I wanted to see what kind of creation they had on Broadway."
It gave her a lot of ideas and a great many challenges for her crew -- not just the performers, but the set crew.
"And it really did challenge my theater tech people," Davis said. "I came back and I -- quite honestly -- just said this is what I want to do. I don't know how you make that happen, but that's what I want it to do."
She said the welding department at school worked on a project for the production. Theater techs figured out problems such as sliding doors without sliding door hardware.
"It's creative for everybody," she said, "not just for the people you see on stage."
But you will see plenty of actors on stage.
"It's a lot of singing, lot of dancing, some great sets," Davis said. "People have an expectation. It's a great show and if you find the right people, you can really do a fun production. And I think we do a good job."
Among those performing are Morgan Carson, a professional actor on hiatus after a recent tour with the Boston Chamber Theatre, who plays Birdie, and Amanda Salter Piercy, UGA theater alum and former radio personality, plays Rosie, fiance to Birdie's manager Albert Peterson.
Popular local performers and community-theater favorites who appear in the show include Chet Dreschel and Eddie McCarty, respectively, who tackle the lead roles of Albert Peterson and Harry MacAfee, the incensed father buffeted by the storm of teenage hormones that develops when Birdie comes to town.
Suzanne Unger, teacher at Lee County Primary School and Theatre Albany alum, plays Albert's long-suffering mother. Lee County High junior Perry Wright plays Kim, the girl who would be kissed, and other lead roles are played by students A. J. Austin, Demi Davis, and Davis Cowart. Other adults appearing in the show are Terry Muggridge, Barbara Hall, Ray Gutierrez and Linda Chancey.
Lee County teachers in the show include Walter Burgess, Janet Massey, Aya Ogawa, Ron McGhee, Kevin Blaise and Linda Gerstel, a teacher at Kinchafooee Elementary who plays the dazed and reeling Mrs. MacAfee.
Davis is in her second year as Lee County High's theater arts director and resident choreographer. Kevin Blaise, Lee County's choral music director, is the vocal director for "Bye Bye Birdie." The sets for the production are designed by tech director Robby Davis and constructed by a team of dedicated adults and students.
"It's a sweet, candy-coated show about a one of those awkward periods of change in America," Davis said . "One of the signature songs in Birdie is 'Put on a Happy Face,' and we have created a production that I know will leave audiences smiling. And, boy, don't we need that right now?"
There are six performances: Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 p.m., and March 25-27 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10, adults; $7, studenst and children. The box office is one hour prior to curtain for each performance. Advance tickets are available at the Lee County High School reception desk during regular school business hours.
There will be two new premium additions to the show experience for theatergoers this year. On opening night, patrons can receive priority seating 15 minutes before the house opens for general admission, and they can attend a special reception at intermission featuring select food items. This opening-night premium is an additional $5. On Sunday, a luncheon featuring Italian fare will be available before the matinee performance. Admission to the matinee luncheon, including priority seating for the matinee, is an additional $5. Tickets to both premium events may be purchased in advance, along with show tickets, at LCHS or from any member of the cast and production staff.