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TMTO's 'Bye Bye Birdie' takes flight

What do you call four dozen young people singing and dancing like crazy about an event their grandparents might struggle to recall? "Bye Bye Birdie," the Teen Musical Theater of Oregon's rockin' new show, which opened Thursday night at the Craterian Theater at the Collier Center.

When hip-shaking teen idol Conrad Birdie (Collin Goldman) gets his draft notice (think Elvis, 1957), his agent, Albert (Matthew McConnell), and his secretary and sweetheart, Rose (Rachel Bennion), hatch a publicity stunt. Birdie will sing Albert’s song “One Last Kiss” on The Ed Sullivan Show, then kiss a girl before trading his guitar for combat boots. The girl turns out to be Kim MacAfee (Maddy Schwartz) from squeaky clean Sweet Apple, Ohio.

The musical's appeal springs from its deft mix of the Albert-Rose romance plot and the satirical focus on the pandemonium that surrounded the young Presley. Will Kim stick with her boyfriend, or will she lose it (whatever than meant in 1950s Sweet Apple)? Will Albert finally stand up to his mother, Mae, and take the plunge with Rose.

With a book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse, the 1960 Broadway production won four Tony Awards and spawned endless revivals. Think shirtwaist dresses, bobby socks and saddle shoes. Typewriters, the Sullivan show, phones with cords. Much of this may fly right over young heads, and the easy optimism of the play's world is from a simpler time.

But there are likable songs ("We Love You Conrad," "Put on a Happy Face," "A Lot of Livin' to Do"), and some that speak a universal language, such as “Baby, Talk to Me,” sung with timeless feeling by McConnell, who has a remarkable voice.

Sure, it's frothy, Fifties' fluff, but it's good fluff, and everything works. Bennion is a match for McConnell and has a show-stopper in "Spanish Rose." Goldman strikes the right mix of rebelliousness and entitlement as Conrad. Josiah Arthur as the irascible father of Conrad's kiss-receiver, Kim, and a very funny Hanna Schneider as Albert's controlling mother, Mae, add plenty of comedy.

There's lots of singing to the professional soundtrack, high energy dance and scenes changing every song or two with flats flying in and out. The thing that surprises newcomers to TMTO shows is how professional they seem. It's taking nothing away from the kids to note that part of the reason for this is that there are pros involved all the way through the productions.

Doug Warner, the artistic director of the Craterian's Next Stage Rep, directed. Cailey McCandless choreographed, Josh Killingsworth was vocal director, Sue Quackenbush designed costumes, and Gabriel Ash the set. The show repeats at 7:30 pm Friday, March 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.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Collin Goldman, as Birdie, and Matthew McConnell and Rachel Bennion star in Teen Musical Theater of Oregon's 'Bye Bye Birdie' at the Craterian. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell photo