‘Billy Bishop’: KCAT, UMKC and WWI museum become allies for a play with music about a legendary Canadian ace

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

When theatergoers stream in to see “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” the first thing they’re likely to notice is a Nieuport 17, a French-made biplane that saw plenty of action in World War I.

But it won’t be airborne. On the contrary, the nearly life-sized replica will be nose-down, falling from the sky, crashing to earth.

“Most of the (research) images I found were of crashed planes,” said scenic designer Kerith Parashak. “It was such a striking image that it was hard to get away from that. Billy Bishop was a fantastic fighter. He was a great shot, but he wasn’t too good at landing. He talks about crashing his plane a couple of times in the show.”

Grant Fletcher Prewitt in "Billy Bishop Goes to War" (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

William Avery Bishop, a Canadian pilot who flew with the Royal Air Corps over France, became one of the most decorated aviators of the First World War. He was credited with 72 victories and won the Victoria Cross for his single-handed attack on a German aerodrome. He also claimed to have survived a fight with Manfred von Richthofen, the fabled Red Baron.

“Around we went in cyclonic circles for several minutes, here a flash of the Hun machines, then a flash of silver as my squadron commander would whiz by,” Bishop once wrote in recounting his battle with the Baron and three of his men, all flying red Albatross triplanes.

“All the time I would be in the same mix-up myself, every now and then finding a red machine in front of me, and letting in a round or two of quick shots. I was glad the Germans were scarlet and we were silver. There was no need to hesitate about firing when the right color flitted by your nose …”

“Billy Bishop Goes to War,” written by Canadians John Gray and Eric Peterson, premiered in 1978 with the authors performing. Gray played multiple characters, including Billy Bishop, and Peterson performed original songs written in a style meant to evoke the feeling of World War I-era music. Eventually Gray and Peterson performed the piece on and off-Broadway, as well as in London and at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

As the authors aged, they revised the show a couple of times, allowing for a much older version of Billy to look back at the events of his youth.

A 7/8 scale replica of the French-built Nieuport 17, a model frequently flown by Billy Bishop during the World War I. (Susan Pfanmuller/Kansas City Star)

The new production, directed by John Rensenhouse, is the second collaboration among the National World War I Museum, Kansas City Actors Theatre and the UMKC Theatre Department. The first was the epic-scale “Oh, What a Lovely War,” which was performed at the museum last year.

“We had such a good experience doing ‘Oh, What a Lovely War,’ it was like, ‘Gosh, what else can we do?’” said Rensenhouse, an Actors Theatre board member. He said Tom Mardikes, chairman of the UMKC Theatre Department, and veteran stage manager Jim Mitchell, two Actors Theatre founders, had worked on a 1991 production of the show at what was then called Missouri Repertory Theatre. Mardikes and Mitchell thought it would be a perfect fit for the museum.

And Rensenhouse said the decision was made early on to cast Grant Fletcher Prewitt as Billy Bishop. Prewitt, like Parashak, is a third-year graduate student at UMKC. And he and Rensenhouse had both appeared in “Oh, What a Lovely War.” Read the full article at kansascity.com.

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