Modesto Performing Arts takes off with ‘Bye Bye Birdie’

Natalie Woodfield, from left, Wesley Vasquez and Michael Johnson prepare for the Modesto Performing Arts performance of “Bye Bye Birdie,” opening Saturday at Gallo Center for the Arts.
Natalie Woodfield, from left, Wesley Vasquez and Michael Johnson prepare for the Modesto Performing Arts performance of “Bye Bye Birdie,” opening Saturday at Gallo Center for the Arts. jlee@modbee.com

Pull out those poodle skirts and pump up that pompadour. The 1950s are back, baby.

Modesto Performing Arts brings back the popular ’50s-themed musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” The story is a thinly veiled satire surrounding Elvis Presley’s real-life drafting into the Army. The Modesto community theater production opens Saturday, June 18, and will run through Sunday, June 26, at the Foster Theater in the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Modesto Performing Arts Director Paul Tischer said it has been almost 20 years since the company last staged the much-loved musical. But after seeing a Downey High School production of the show last year, he was reminded of its appeal.

“I kind of forgot about how great the show is. It’s very, very funny. I was laughing at all the jokes. And I thought I’d love to do this again,” Tischer said. “And I’ve been laughing all the way through rehearsals because it’s so funny.”

In the show a slick singer named Conrad Birdie, a play on also popular country singer Conway Twitty’s name, gets drafted. Recent Orestimba High School graduate Wesley Vasquez plays the teenage rock ’n’ roller. This will be his third production with Modesto Performing Arts, after “A Christmas Carol” and “Guys and Dolls.”

Vasquez stepping into Conrad’s shiny suits has been a fun exercise in opposites.

“He is the exact opposite of me. So playing him is easy because I just have to play it the way I would never be in real life,” he said. “The outfits alone, when I get into it, I can feel the evil coming off of it.”

Before Conrad leaves, his agent and songwriter Albert Peterson with his secretary Rosie Alvarez hatch a plans to have him sing Albert’s song on Ed Sullivan. Playing Albert is recently retired Downey High drama teacher Michael Johnson, whose production of the show inspired Tischer to do his own. Modesto actress Natalie Woodfield plays his long-suffering secretary and girlfriend, Rosie.

The Modesto Performing Arts show features a cast of 52 local performers that range from elementary and high school students to retirees such as Johnson. The cast comes from Modesto, Oakdale, Riverbank, Ceres and beyond.

Still, the period setting has caused confusion for some of the show’s younger cast members. Tischer said the importance of “The Ed Sullivan Show” had to be explained to the teens. And so did the concept of being “pinned.”

“It was hard to explain that to them. They thought it meant something, um, else,” Tischer said.

Someone who didn’t have to have the story or its lingo explained was Johnson. He played the same role, back in 1979, the first time MPA put on the production. The last time the company staged the show was in 1997.

“I’ve worked with Paul for so many years, and I’ve learned so much over those years,” Johnson said.

Woodfield, who has performed with MPA since high school and through college, said working with such a large and varied cast has been a fun experience. The 24-year-old who gives voice lessons said some of her students are performing with her.

“It’s been a really good learning experience,” she said. “I love being involved in all parts of community theater. And I love that community theater is alive and well here.”

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland

Modesto Performing Arts’ ‘Bye Bye Birdie’

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 19; 7 p.m. Thursday, June 23; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 24-25; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 26

Where: Foster Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto

Tickets: $19-$34

Call: 209-338-2100

Online: www.galloarts.org