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Community theater production links longtime thespians, newcomers

POSTED: July 7, 2010 11:30 p.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Parker Couch, a Gainesville High School graduate, makes a return to the school's stage as the title character, Conrad Birdie.

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Your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you.

When you settle into your seat at any of next week’s performances of "Bye Bye Birdie" at Gainesville High School, the faces in the cast will probably look familiar. If someone looks like your insurance agent, your child’s teacher or even your family attorney, that’s because they probably are.

The annual summer community theater production, sponsored by Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation department, blends elementary-age students with recent college grads and moms and dads who have lived in Hall County for years, all for a couple weeks of rehearsals and a handful of performances to show off their hard work.

The cast members showed up for the first rehearsal about a week ago, hopefully with their lines already memorized, and will spend the time during daily rehearsals to brush up on their cues and choreography.

Set in 1958, the satire tells the story of a rock ’n’ roll singer — Conrad Birdie, inspired by Elvis’ drafting into the Army — who comes to a small town as a publicity stunt before he’s shipped off. His publicist, Albert, and his faithful secretary, Rose, have arranged for him to plant a kiss on the president of his fan club — a pretty 15-year-old named Kim McAfee.

In the movie adapted from the play, Kim was played by Ann-Margaret. This production features Emmeline Whitehead, 14, as Kim, who will be a freshman at Lakeview Academy in the fall.

Gainesville High School graduate Parker Couch, 22, plays Birdie, and said he’s been studying up on Elvis’ hip-shaking movements with YouTube videos.

"I thought my hips could move a little better than they can," he said, noting this is the first time in four years since he’s been on the GHS stage. During his time at the high school, he logged 32 shows in four years.

"Birdie can’t be straight-up Elvis impersonation, but I’m a little more of a Southern boy, which Elvis was," Couch said. "And he’s going off into the Army and comes to a small town like Gainesville and causes a ruckus. It’s a good show; it’s a fun show."

Local attorney Mickey Neidenbach, 57, is the father who has to contend with this boy coming into his house to kiss his daughter. He’s a veteran of the community theater productions run by longtime GHS drama teacher Pam Ware.

"Ms. Ware runs a quality program, a quality production, to bring entertainment to the community," he said. "She gets more out of folks in acting than you realize you had inside you."

Neidenbach said he and his entire family started with the summer theater program years ago, and as his children grew up and left town, he and his wife stayed with it.

Many of the characters in the production share family ties. But not having a relative in the play doesn’t keep others from joining up, too.

Fancy Pettit, 25, has been living in Gainesville for just three years and decided to try out for the play to meet some new people.

She teaches music at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville, and this is the second musical she’s ever performed — counting last year’s community theater production. Although, with the power and range of her voice, you would think she’s been doing theater since she was a child.

"I had a lot of fun last year and I had the summer off again," she said. "It’s a great way to meet people."

Then, there’s longtime GHS theater participants Clint Hamlin, 26, and Perry Troutman, 25, who spent much of their school-age years in the GHS theater.

Hamlin averaged about five shows a year while at Gainesville High School and still can’t get over the rush of being on stage.

"There’s a rush you get from doing musical theater that you can’t get in sports," said Hamlin, who has since graduated from college and now works for Mansfield Oil. "I think the only thing that comes close is preaching, and I don’t think I can do that yet."

Troutman, whose younger sister, Charleston, is choreographing the show, said she makes a point to participate in the summer production every year. She’s been doing community theater since she was in the fifth grade, and after graduating high school she went on to tour around the world with a performance company.

"It’s good to meet kids from other schools who aren’t necessarily Gainesville High School theater kids," she said. "It helps promote a better community aspect, so it’s not that football rivalry. It brings everyone together ... all walks of life just come together because it’s fun."



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