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Teen theater marks return to large cast and bigger audiences at Craterian

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Jim Craven photo Cailey McCandless, program director for Teen Musical Theater of Oregon, confers with director Jaese Lecuyer during a rehearsal of "High School Musical," the Disney production that will run Aug. 6-15 at the Craterian Theater.
Jim Craven photo Caitlin Callahan, left, and Elsa Bkillingsley (Baker's Wife and Cinderella) perform in a recent TMTO production of "Into the Woods." Professional costumes, sets, and production elements are provided by the Craterian Theater.
Jim Craven photo Teens run through choreography for a dance number from "High School Musical," scheduled Aug. 6-15 at the Craterian Theater. Rehearsals of the Teen Musical Theater of Oregon production began June 21.
The TMTO production of ‘High School Musical’ runs from Aug. 6-15

With expectations of being able to open with no masking or social distancing, Teen Musical Theater of Oregon will present “High School Musical” Aug. 6-15 at the Craterian Theater in Medford.

TMTO program director Cailey McCandless is excited about the prospect of having a large cast of teens and an auditorium full of people cheering them on.

“We’re hopeful that this will be our return to normal,” she said.

Craterian Executive Director Stephen McCandless says “High School Musical” is a return to the program’s roots.

“It’s more emblematic of what TMTO is best known for: upbeat, high-energy, fast-moving fun with a positive message about being and celebrating who you are,” he said.

The Craterian ED anticipates the state opening up by the end of the month.

“That means we’ll be back to full cast size with about 50 teens in this production,” he said. “And it will be chock full of choreography and production numbers.” That was something that TMTO couldn’t do within the constraints of the pandemic.

“High School Musical” is a 2006 television musical that became the most commercially successful Disney Channel original movie ever produced.

With a plot described as a modern adaptation of “Romeo & Juliet,” “High School Musical” is a story about two high school juniors from rival stereotypical cliques. The protagonists, a basketball team captain and a shy transfer student excelling in math and science, together try out for the lead parts in their high school musical.

“If you’ve never experienced the energy and magic of a live TMTO production, we hope you’ll join us this August,” Cailey McCandless said.

“It’s just a blast. And now, more than ever, it feels like we could all use a moment of fun,” she said.

TMTO has not been dormant during the pandemic. It produced two stage productions, made a movie, produced a video series, and offered performing arts classes. Each project was filled to COVID capacity limits. “They were extremely successful, especially under the circumstances,” Stephen McCandless said.

That said, none of the projects during the pandemic turned out as planned because of changing COVID guidelines. TMTO’s “Into the Woods,” which concluded its run at the Craterian June 20, was no exception.

“We went from audiences of 50 to 75 and then to 150, depending on guidelines of the day and week” he said.

The increase in audience size allowed by the state was a positive, but COVID realities had their effect on the production.

“The cast rehearsed in masks and Cailey staged the show with an eye on social distancing,” McCandless said. “So it was definitely a product of its time.”

Under normal circumstances, TMTO shows are produced in July, August, December and March. The pandemic put them off schedule for 2020 and 2021.

The youth theater program enjoys the same production resources that are used for international touring companies, Broadway stars and celebrities who play the Craterian. Because of TMTO’s success, a summer junior program was added (to resume in 2022) and a 25,000-square-foot rehearsal center and production facility was purchased.

Each TMTO show typically features a cast of 50-65 teens and plays to audiences of 2,500-3,500.

“I have been proud and impressed by our cast members,” McCandless said. He cited Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” as an example of how teens in the program have met the challenges of a sophisticated musical.

“Everyone in the show was a principal,” he said, “so all 18 actors and our five understudies had to be triple threats, able to sing, dance and act their way through more than two hours of complex material. Our cast members were workmanlike in the way they did their jobs as storytellers.”

TMTO’s mission doesn’t include musical instrument training, but it supports its casts with professional production elements.

“We consider the musical accompaniment to be one of those elements,” McCandless said.

“High School Musical” will utilize professional recordings.

“The cast gets to sing to professional orchestral accompaniment and the audience gets to hear music that is Broadway quality,” he said.

“It’s not without its challenges, of course, because it leaves the cast without a conductor. But with enough rehearsal and instruction from the vocal director, they’re able to master the timing and syncopations and stay on the beat without benefit of the conductor’s baton,” he said.

After TMTO wraps up “High School Musical” in mid-August, it will hold auditions in September for the winter show, which will begin rehearsals in October. In January, TMTO will audition and begin rehearsals for the spring production, which will open in March.

“We haven’t announced those titles yet, but will very soon,” he said. “And this summer we’re also offering two musical theater camps. Based on past experience, these will fill to capacity.”

TMTO summer sessions for students ages 7-11 include the Harry Potter Camp July 26 to Aug. 6 and the Princesses and Pirates Camp Aug. 9-21, both from 9 a.m. to noon.

Campers learn about aspects of performing through activities, crafts and exercises. Each program culminates in a short musical program. To register, visit craterian.org and click on the TMTO button.

Tickets to “High School Musical” are $25 for adults, $15 for youths and students 22 and younger. They are available at craterian.org or by calling the box office at 541-779-3000 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.