Jill Townsend plays Kim MacAfee in 'Bye Bye Birdie'
Hello Birdie ... in Redondo Beach
By Jim Farber Theater Critic
Article Launched: 09/18/2008 09:15:15 PM PDT
Jill Townsend plays an Ohio teen who wins the chance to kiss a rock idol in "Bye Bye Birdie," opening this weekend at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
When "Bye Bye Birdie" opened on Broadway in 1960, the Elvis-inspired teen musical began with a black-and-white film sequence showing close-ups of sideburns, swiveling hips, tight pants and an Elvis Presley look-alike wielding a guitar, ending with the blaring headline "Conrad Birdie Drafted!"
For the opening of the 1963 film version, director George Sidney used the same idea - for about five seconds. Then, suddenly, the screen explodes into color and a vivacious young redhead, set off against a blue background, starts singing and dancing her heart out: "Bye, bye, Birdie, I'm gonna miss you so!"
It was, of course, Ann-Margret as Kim MacAfee, the rosy-cheeked teenager from Sweet Apple, Ohio, who wins "one last kiss" from Conrad Birdie live on the "The Ed Sullivan Show."
The film featured some high-powered talent at the top of its credits. But it was the unknown Ann-Margret, buried under her enormous floppy sweater singing "How Lovely to Be a Woman," who stole the show. Sidney knew what he had. Soon America did too.
"You ask most people what they relate to in `Bye Bye Birdie,' they'll think of Ann-Margret," says director Dan Mojica, the man behind Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' production of the nifty '50s musical, which previews tonight at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. "They won't think of Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera who originated it."
Jill Townsend, who will play Kim in the upcoming performances, is hoping that kind of lightning can strike again. But, she realizes she has a pretty big task ahead of her if she expects to fill Ann-Margret's sweater.
"I am a big fan of the film and Ann-Margret," says the petite 31-year-old actress. "What I have to do is project my own concept of Kim while maintaining the aura of Ann-Margret."
"It's that wonderful teen, sex-kitten thing," adds Mojica. "Jill's got a very young look about her. And she's small. You put her next to some of the 19- and 20-year-olds in our cast and she looks great."
This is actually the second time around for Mojica and Townsend, who staged their first "Birdie" together over the summer in San Diego.
"I think Jill is perfect for the role of Kim," Mojica says. "And we're having an even better experience the second time around. It's giving us the chance to dig deeper and go further, a second chance at upping our game."
One of Townsend's favorite scenes, she said, is when she sings "How Lovely to Be a Woman."
"What's tricky about that number is having to change (clothes) on stage the way she did in the movie," Townsend says. "I have to get out of a dress with this big sweater over me. By the end of the song you're seeing Kim the tomboy. It's wonderful the way she's singing about one thing (her new life as a sophisticated young woman) as she transforms herself into exactly the opposite."
The fact that "Bye Bye Birdie" is set in the 1950s, Townsend and Mojica agree, should not prevent today's text-messaging, Facebook-posting teenagers from enjoying it.
"Conrad Birdie is the `American Idol' of today," Mojica says. "If you want to compare (last season's `Idol' winner) David Cook to Conrad Birdie, it's the same feeling. What's great about this show is it is a blast from the past, this retro world of the '50s, of Elvis Presley and teenagers."
"Bye Bye Birdie" also will star James Royce Edwards as Conrad Birdie, John Bisom as Albert Peterson and Natalie Nucci as Rose Alvarez. The musical director is Alby Potts.