‘Oklahoma!’ celebrates 75 years

TheaterCNU and the Department of Music’s presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical premiered Friday night to a packed Peebles Theater

~Kristen Ziccarelli, A&E Editor~

If you thought a box social was just a casual affair for a small town in the Midwest, ‘Oklahoma!’ will surely change your mind.

Friday night, the classic musical opened in the Ferguson’s Peebles Theater for the first of six shows brought to life by TheaterCNU and the Department of Music. Now in its seventy-fifth year, this Rodgers and Hammerstein’s production features fifteen musical numbers performed by a twenty-person orchestra and a large cast including two ensembles.

Throughout the years, many have appreciated ‘Oklahoma!’ as a piece of ‘Americana,’ or a nostalgic snapshot of a territory on the eve of statehood.

The story captures the events of a single day and a final scene three weeks later, where main characters Curly (Adam LeKang) and Laurey (Autumn Laverne) have trouble admitting their feelings for each other. Surrounding conflicts ensue as farm hand Jud (Peyton Creasy) pursues Laurey and Ado Annie (Katie Murphy) falls between a peddler named Ali Hakim (Ty Norris) and cowboy Will Parker (Matt Stevenson).

The nearly three-hour performance begins on a stage with Aunt Eller (Lauren McCaffrey) simply working on the farm and the song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” However, the journey to the curtain opening to that moment is anything but simple.

September saw the initial planning stages for “Oklahoma!,” centering on the directing, designing and choreographing. According to scenic designer Dave Shuhy, having a unique approach to this decades-old musical is particularly important.

“Oklahoma’s been done in so many different ways,” Shuhy said. “We found a way to connect the traditional elements but give it a new contemporary feel.” 

Dance co-captain and member of the ensemble Cody Davis described this aspect as a factor to wrestle with in all stages of the production. 

“I think one of the biggest challenges that I knew coming into it is the fact that it is so well-known,” Davis said. “People are going to have that pre-conceived notion of what they have seen ‘Oklahoma!’ as and people take a lot of ownership to the show.” 

Reconciling the traditional and modern elements in the form of dance numbers, choreographer Laura Lloyd bought the rights for some of the original choreography (done by Agnes de Mille) and has crafted other parts as  her own. 

Coordinating dance, blocking and other stage elements became more in intense in January, where actors and faculty rehearsed for three twelve-hour days in a ‘bootcamp’ before the beginning of Spring semester. Director and Associate Professor Theater at Indiana University South Bend Justin Amelio visited to assist mainly with blocking, or the precise staging of actors across the stage during each scene.  

The ‘boot camp’ is customary for musicals, where the songs and dance add an entirely different dimension to the production. According to senior Lauren McCaffrey, there is a huge difference between ‘straight’ theater plays and musicals.

“You’re serving three co-directors the music director, choreographer and the director,” McCaffrey said.  “There’s a lot of people to answer to and a lot of expectation and a lot to think about at one time, but it’s a very rewarding thing because the musicals end up great in the end.”

McCaffrey cited various other differences between the two types of productions.

“With the straight plays it’s more of a slower artistic process, so the musicals are really fast-paced there’s not a lot of time to sit and think,” McCaffrey said. “But with the straight plays you do table work, you sit down together as a cast, you read the plays, pick apart the characters and you learn about the history more.”

A more visually obvious distinction is the large orchestra in “Oklahoma!” directed by J. Lynn Thompson. For Davis, the orchestra’s role during his ‘Dream ballet’ sequence with ‘Dream Laurey’ (Remy Thompson) makes the moment especially spectacular. 

“It’s every dancer’s dream to be on stage dancing to a full orchestra,” Davis said. “The fact that we’re doing these elaborate lifts with the full orchestra behind us – it give me goosebumps but I still have to pinch myself when that music for the ballet starts.”

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