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TMTO presents 'Bye Bye Birdie'

Teen Musical Theater of Oregon has danced its way through the 1920s with “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” survived the Great Depression with “Annie,” and provided an uplifting tale with the 1940s “Miracle on 34th Street.” Now TMTO takes on the '50s with a production of the award-winning Broadway musical about a teen singing idol and the girls who love him, “Bye Bye Birdie.”

It’s 1958 and the controversial rock ’n’ roll star, Conrad Birdie, has been drafted into the U.S. Army. His agent plots one last, big publicity stunt. Birdie will sing “One Last Kiss” to an adoring fan on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and plant a smooch on her. When Birdie and his entourage arrive in Sweet Apple, Ohio, to bestow that kiss on lucky Kim McAfee, they find themselves caught up in the agonies of teenage love, the throes of parental disapproval and the chaos that ensues when generations clash.

“Bye Bye Birdie” plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 5-6, and 2 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Tickets cost $20, $10 for ages 18 and younger, and can be purchased at the Craterian box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., online at craterian.org or by calling 541-779-3000.

The story for “Bye Bye Birdie” was inspired by the national hullabaloo that ensued when Elvis Presley was sent a draft notice. The show, with book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse, won a Tony Award in 1961 for Best Musical and a Tony Award for its star, Dick Van Dyke.

Doug Warner, artistic director of Craterian’s Next Stage Repertory Company, directs “Bye Bye Birdie.”

“When I started describing the 1950s and the phenomenon of Elvis Presley to the kids, they had nothing to compare it to,” Warner says. “They started doing research, learning about the social mores, the values of the time. Collin Goldman, who plays Birdie, watched YouTube videos to see Elvis’ moves, the reaction of the girls in the audience, how everything was programmed.”

Warner notes that the kids had no trouble identifying with hours of exchanged telephone gossip, equating it with today’s texting. What amused them was how telephone cords kept the speaker tied to one place.

The TMTO production of “Bye Bye Birdie” also stars Madeline Schwartz, Matthew McConnell, Rachel Bennion, Hannah Schneider and Evan Sheets. There are 21 actors with principal roles and an additional ensemble that swells the onstage presence to 55 performers — cast from open auditions held in January.

“We rehearse for seven weeks before we open,” Warner says. “What you will see on stage is professional theater.”

Choreography is by Cailey McCandless with Maria Martin, vocal direction by Josh Killingsworth, costumes by Sue Quackenbush and sets by Gabriel Ash.

Warner says he is struck by how many of the cast are repeat performers with TMTO, coming back production after production.

“We are constantly reaching out to local high schools for new talent,” Warner says. “It's a very professional audition to begin with, and it's a real pleasure to watch the kids’ skill levels improve, show after show.”

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Collin Goldman, bottom, plays Conrad Birdie, Matthew McConnell plays his agent, Albert Peterson, and Rachel Bennion plays Rosie Alvarez in TMTO's production of 'Bye Bye Birdie.' Mail Tribune/Bob Pennell