by Gabby Blair
Pull out those poodle skirts! Dust off the old saddle shoes! The JCC Community Theater Group is taking you back to 1958 Sweet Apple, Ohio, to join in the fun and frivolity of the acclaimed classic musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie, on Thursday, May 29 and Sunday, June 1.
All-American rock-n-roll star and heart throb of the nation, Conrad Birdie (Danny Denenberg), has been drafted. His agent and hopeful songwriter, Albert (Jeremy Wright), and his longtime girlfriend/secretary Rosie (Leanne Hill Carson), are scheming on ways to cash in on one last publicity stunt before Birdie, their only hope to make it big, is sent off to war. An adoring fan base of teenaged girls is clamoring to win a televised farewell kiss from the iconic (a lá Elvis Presley) star. The quiet, little town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, is beset by chaos and hijinks after local teen, Kim MacAfee (Laura Kirshenbaum), is announced as the contest winner, much to the chagrin of her steady beau Hugo Peabody (Ben Brodkey). Audiences young and old are sure to enjoy the nostalgic charm and hilarity of this much loved musical satire.
Bye Bye Birdie is the tenth JCC Community Theater production directed by Fran Sillau, who has been enchanting us with quality entertainment at the Omaha JCC since 2009. His debut in our community came after he was approached by then Director of The Institute for Holocaust Education, Beth Dotan, to direct Hana’s Suitcase, a play documenting the life of a Jewish 13-year-old during the Shoah. Fran, a native of the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, has been involved in theater since age ten and has been dedicated to the big stage as a teacher, writer, producer and director for over a decade. He has worked in Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, North Dakota, Tennessee, New York, Washington, Connecticut, and Washington D.C. facilitating theater workshops and productions for a wide range of professionals in arts education. After working in such big name places, he says there is no community he’d rather be a part of. “Omaha provides me with the best of both worlds. There is strong support and appreciation of the Arts here and the cost of living makes it possible for an artist to be an artist.” Sillau loves directing community theater at the JCC and it shows when he describes the Arts Department. “So rarely do you have a team that is truly like family” he says of Producer Esther Katz, Rehearsal Director Jessica Reed, former Rehearsal Director Tiffany Gray, Musical Director Bernadette Smith and Choreographer Courtney Stein. He acknowledges that especially in the arts, the market can be tight and the competition cutthroat, but the team really strives to maintain a fun, learning experience that keeps people coming back as both actors and as audiences. “It’s more than just teaching kids to be on a stage,” says Sillau. “In this electric world we live in, it’s about remembering to teach the importance of face-to-face communication. Its about learning to think in the bigger picture, and in a role outside of your self. Especially with youth, it’s about learning important skills such as commitment, sacrifice, accountability, respect and the ability to be part of a community. Theater should be a place where community comes together as family.”
Sillau, while too humble to use such a term to describe himself, is indeed a pioneer of “using theater as a tool” in the Omaha area. Inspired by his supportive family who encouraged him from a young age to not let a physical disability get in the way of his dreams, Sillau has brought the art of theater to a cutting new edge for those children and adults who are physically or developmentally disabled. In addition to his work at the JCC, Fran, who is currently pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at Goddard University, also teaches and performs in conjunction with The Rose Theater, The Omaha Theater Company, Omaha Public Schools, and The Omaha Playhouse. He also spoke about work he has been a part of at the Dr. J.P. Lord School. This very special OPS school is housed on the UNMC campus for our community’s most medically delicate children ages 5-21. He is honored to have been able to bring a taste of the performing arts to these children to whom it wouldn’t otherwise be available. Sillau is also an artist with WhyArts!?, a local non-profit that brings the visual and performing arts to students of all demographics, abilities and ages. Fran credits WhyArts!? Director Carolyn Owen Anderson along with Executive Director of The Omaha Public Schools Foundation, Toba Cohen-Dunning, with his foray into teaching the tools of theater to the disabled, which he has found amazingly satisfying. “It’s important when starting out to have people who believe in you, to give you confidence to start something new,” Sillau explains of Anderson and Cohen-Dunning. He says the real title of “pioneer” in using art as therapy for persons with disabilities should go to Jean Kennedy Smith of the JFK Center for The Performing Arts, of which he has been a grant recipient, and mentor Susan D. Loesl, an Adaptive Art Specialist in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Loesl is also a national consultant recognized for her international work in using adaptive and low technology art strategies as tools in learning institutions.
Sillau was excited to help choose Bye Bye Birdie as the spring show. “This is such a fun musical, a real 360 from our last production, Fiddler On The Roof Jr. It makes a nice transition from darkness to light and we have an amazing group for this play,” which he describes as a “love letter to our perception of the 1950’s.” Rehearsals have been coming along wonderfully according to Sillau, and he is happy to again have the support of Rehearsal Director Jessica Reed to help keep things running smoothly.
“It is nice to see the playfulness that Bye Bye Birdie is already having in the rehearsal process,” says Reed. “Everyone seems to arrive excited and leaves with smiles on their faces. I know every time I see a new scene or song being worked on, I am eager to see the final product during our performances. It is a little hard for some of our younger cast members to understand the lingo or customs of the 1950s, but everyone is continuing to learn and work together.”
She goes on to say: “Fran is a great director to work with during this process. He has a passion for theater and it shows in his work. When he directs a particular scene, he is a little more hands-off with the actors because he wants to find movement and blocking that feels good to them, but will also look good from the audience’s point of view. He is also a good collaborator, as is all of our artistic staff. We all work well together to make this process as smooth as possible and to come out with a great production in the end.”
Sillau personally loves the big dance productions in Bye Bye Birdie and gives all the credit to Smith and Stein whose talents in music and choreography “make my work beautiful. I am so lucky to even be in the room with them!” He goes on to say, “The team is really taking advantage of the fact that not everyone is in the same scenes, thus allowing us to work ahead and more intently in small groups, even individually.” He is also very appreciative of Katz, who approached him with the vision of recreating and rejuvenating inclusive community theater at the JCC. “My goal,” says Sillau, “is to one day run a theater organization. That is why I am going back to school. That’s why I am soaking up as much real world experience as I can. Until then, it’s important to do good work, follow through, and make opportunities for oneself, because no one else can do that for you,” he explains. “As with any passion that you want to be your life’s work, it’s not for sissies, it’s about sacrifice. Now. Of time. Of social life. Because in the end, I think it will be worth it, to pursue a passion!”
Bye Bye Birdie, which is generously sponsored by The Karen Sokolof Javitch Music Fund and the JCC Theater Program Endowment Fund, both of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, is sure to be another sold out performance, so be ready to get those $5 general admission tickets right when they go on sale! Tickets are available beginning May 12 by contacting JCC Registrar Laura Wine at 402.334.6419, or by visiting our ticket table which will be set up at the JCC main entrance 9 -10 a.m. that morning only. We look forward to seeing YOU in Sweet Apple!