For the fifth show of its summer season, Nittany Theatre at the Barn presents the world premiere of “Betty Crocker, Kinsey, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: A New 1950s Comedy,” through Aug. 15 in Boalsburg. Written by Nittany Theatre’s producing artistic director, David Saxe, and directed by Richard Roland, the comedy highlights how various family members and personality types dealt with cultural changes in the 1950s, when icons such as Betty Crocker, Dr. Alfred Kinsey and rock ’n’ roll took front and center.
“Betty Crocker, Kinsey, and Rock ’n’ Roll” is about a family experiencing these changes happening in the late 1950s in America. Betty Crocker’s cookbook was hot, with an approach to cooking as an art to knit a family even closer and tighter, while Kinsey’s book, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” was even hotter, re-examining the role of women in society. Wrapped around the events leading up to the Sweet 16 party of the eldest daughter of the family, Donna Jean, these two books, as well as the explosion of rock ’n’ roll, influence the actions of the characters of the play.
While using music of the period as a backdrop, with songs from the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Platters and many others, “Betty Crocker, Kinsey, and Rock ’n’ Roll” is not a musical, but rather it can be categorized as a good old comedy.
“The writer, Dave Saxe, calls it ‘“Happy Days” on steroids,’ which is accurate,” Roland said. “It is definitely influenced by that show, but also gives gracious nods to ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘The Donna Reed Show,’ and ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’ while taking on a life of its own. This piece seems to be a nice complement to previous shows in the season like ‘Always, Patsy Cline,’ ‘Forever Plaid,’ and ‘The Taffetas.’ ”
Playing the role of the younger sister Bonnie Sue will be Hannah Richardson, a 14-year-old singer, songwriter and actress who has given more than 400 live performances for various festivals, concerts, tours and charity events.
Locally, Richardson has performed at the Bryce Jordan Center, Pegula Ice Arena and the Eisenhower Auditorium for events such as the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. Richardson loves the theater and has performed in both musicals and dramas, including “Freckleface Strawberry” (Strawberry), “The Wiz” (The Wizard), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Helena), and most recently this past month as the Courier in Nittany Theatre’s musical “1776.”
Bonnie Sue finds herself in the role of being the boss and feels that her family is falling apart and needs a true leader.
“With her sister getting hickies, her mother drinking alcohol, her father in a bad mood, and her brother eating far too much sand, their ‘typical family’ is becoming a nightmare,” Richardson said. “Through it all, Bonnie Sue stays strong and tries to keep the family normal. She does this by being brutally honest, and using her influence to affect change in the household. She is in charge of keeping the family updated on what’s going on, and keeping things functioning.”
Richardson said she is a classic movie freak, and thoroughly enjoyed preparing for this show by looking at 1950s history and what led up to that period of time. She watched some of her favorite movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” to get a feeling of the times, and also had to learn to do certain things in the show like yo-yo tricks and paddleball.
“I believe that learning the setting of a play helps you to fully understand the situation,” she said. “The whole rehearsal process has been absolutely incredible. Working with our director, Mr. Richard Roland, has been spectacular. He really helps the actors with character development and has a clear vision.”
The 1950s were a unique time in American history and the family structure was changing. After World War II, more women were working and becoming more independent. There was economic prosperity for much of America. Televisions, automobiles and rock ’n’ roll were all part of the changing demographics of a prosperous and exciting time in America’s history.
The concept of “Betty Crocker, Kinsey, and Rock ’n’ Roll” is a simple one. As writer David Saxe puts it, “It’s a day in the life of a ’50s family.”
“I don’t think my concept differs from that of the writer — that change is inevitable, and that we’re all going to wake up the next morning as the same person we were the night before no matter what, and that we all learn to adapt,” Roland said.
“I think that the message of the show is to enjoy the little things in life,” Richardson said. “It will put a smile on people’s faces and bring back memories of their family whether or not they were born in the ’50s. This play might not have explosions or terrifying sharks, but it’s certainly a memory and something that most families can relate to.”
After they see this new production and walk out of the theater, Roland believes the audience will be able to draw parallels between their own lives and the lives of the characters in the play.
“The audience will come away with a wonderful sense of nostalgia if they lived during this period, and if they didn’t, they’ll identify with the family as it copes with the ever-changing social, cultural and political climates,” he said. “Mr. Saxe has done a beautiful job of bringing real human characters and feelings to the page, and it has been my honor to bring them even further to the stage.”