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Chester County Press

Kennett middle schoolers to stage 'Bye Bye Birdie'

05/02/2017 11:28AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

For Heather Uster, an eighth-grade science teacher at Kennett Middle School and the director of the school's upcoming student production of “Bye Bye Birdie: Young Performers' Edition,” the scene is a very familiar one.
Uster and assistant director Gretchen Coe, a seventh-grade science teacher at the school, stood before nearly 100 actors and technical crew members who were seated in the middle of the school's gymnasium. It was exactly one week from a three-show run of the musical that will be performed May 5 and 6, and there were still kinks in the production. Lighting, sound and entrance cues still needed to be tightened. Stage props and costumes still needed to be touched up and added to, but largely, the show was coming together. It was jelling, Uster said.
Directing a cast of 70 actors and 30 stage crew, Uster said, requires a lot of patience, and much more.
“It also requires loving middle school students, understanding their quirkiness, working with others who also understand their quirkiness, and taking these young people to places they didn't know they could go to,” said Uster, who is directing her 18th school production. “It's seeing the excitement on their faces when they know they have done it. When you see the brightness in their eyes, that's extremely rewarding.”
“Bye Bye Birdie: Young Performers’ Edition” is a one-hour adaptation of the longtime Broadway musical, specially tailored for elementary and middle school-aged children. It's a loving send-up of  1960s, small-town America, teenagers, and rock & roll. Teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie has been drafted, so he chooses all-American girl Kim McAfee for a very public farewell kiss. Featuring a tuneful high-energy score, plenty of great parts for kids, and a hilarious script, “Birdie's” songs are now part of the Great American songbook: “Put on a Happy Face,” “One Last Kiss,” “One Boy,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” “Kids!” and “Rosie.”
The announcement of the show was made last December, which was followed by a two-week audition period in January, and rehearsals that began in February. Uster said that while a large number of cast members are new to theater, several are return actors who have clearly demonstrated a passion for performing.
“We talk about having three-year thespians here at the middle school,” she said. “We highly expect many of them to go onto be seven-year thespians in the school district, from sixth to twelfth grade, and some of those will go on to college and the community, to continue to live their passion.”
For many students who get involved in school theater productions, their reasons for doing so have less to do with being able to perform on stage, and more to do with establishing a sense of belonging.
“Musical theater is a place where children who don't seem to belong in other places can find a place to belong to a group, that welcomes them with their quirks and differences, and where they are recognized as important,” Uster said. “Everyone is a little quirky, and when we get people together who accept each other for being quirky, it's really a comfortable feeling.
“Kids who don't get involved in other things tend to join us because it's safe, and a lot of kids are looking for a safe place, in order to be a part of a family.”
“Bye Bye Birdie-Young Performers' Edition” will be performed at Kennett Middle School's gymnasium May 5 at 7 p.m., and May 6 at 1 and 7 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, and $4 for students and seniors. Kennett Middle School is at 195 Sunny Dell Rd., Landenberg.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].