By Alex Owens
Typically, you don’t want an actor to phone in a performance — unless, of course, the play requires them to do so.
But even then, there can be challenges, as Dr. Mark Arapostathis discovered while rehearsing his students for Captain Hook Theater’s upcoming production of the classic musical, “Bye Bye Birdie.”
The musical takes place in the 1950s and centers around a town excited about the appearance of rock singer Conrad Birdie before he goes off to the Army.
The students liked the period hairstyles, letterman jackets and poodle skirts, but some parts of the era confused them, Arapostathis said.
“In one of the scenes the characters are standing next to a phone booth and some of the actors didn’t know what that was,” Arapostathis, who is also the mayor of La Mesa, said. “There was also confusion about which end of a landline phone goes next to the ear.”
Arapostathis uses both the Captain Hook Theater and its pre-high school counterpart, Peter Pan Junior Theater, as a vehicle for cultural literacy.
That meant explaining things like how men were drafted into the military, as well as watching Elvis Presley’s performances on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” since he’s the inspiration for Conrad Birdie.
Sullivan is an off-stage presence in the stage musical, and the kids had strong opinions of him after watching his show.
“No one knew who Ed Sullivan was, but we watched a few episodes and the kids asked, ‘Why was he famous?’ I said, ‘Well, you can say the same about Ryan Seacrest.’”
Arapostathis also worked with actor Elizjah Jack, who plays Birdie, to help him get into character.
“It’s hard to deal with screaming girls and be comfortable onstage,” Arapostathis said. “He learned to swing his hips, but he’s a humble musician. It took time, but he did watch some Elvis movies.”
Other roles were easier for the teenage actors.
“‘Bye Bye Birdie’ has a lot of unique characters that allow the actors to stretch their acting chops, but there are a lot of parts where teenagers play teenagers, as opposed to a middle-aged person,” Arapostathis said.
This is the third time Peter Pan Junior Theater and Captain Hook Theater have put on “Bye Bye Birdie,” and Arapostathis says its selection is indicative of where the program is headed.
“I’ve been told we’re the junior theater that does the classic musicals, as opposed to other companies that do newer productions, and we’ll take that,” Arapostathis said with a smile.
“Bye Bye Birdie” runs June 27-30 at The Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center Theatre, 6845 University Ave., San Diego. Evening performances begin at 7 p.m. while the Saturday matinee begins at 1 p.m.
Tickets cost $15, but can be purchased for $10 at chooktheater.com with this code: CHOOK2018. Thursday night is Student Night with tickets costing $5 for teens with school I.D.
—Alex Owens is a La Mesa-based freelance writer.