“Oklahoma!” was a performance with many firsts, which changed the landscape of American musicals. Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” it is known for being the first show to take music, storytelling and ballet, and combine them to tell a coherent story. At the end of Act I, the famous ballet, “Dream Ballet” acts as an essentail part of the character arcs.
“Up until that point in 1943, [when the show first hit Broadway,] dances were novelty acts,” Ray Kennedy, director of the Opera House production, says. “In this show, it’s a very big part of the storyline and furthers the plot.”
It was also the first musical that cast singers first, not actors, according to Kennedy. Presenting a musical in this fashion proved to be groundbreaking.
Composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, they worked in tandem with Hammerstein writing lyrics to help flesh out the story comprehensively. Rodgers constructed the music around completed lyrics. Each excelled at their preferred method of writing, and their artistic acumen started one of the most successful musical partnerships in Broadway history (“The Sound of Music,” “The King and I” and “South Pacific”).
For the first time in over 20 years, “Oklahoma!” being produced in Wilmington. Kennedy has dreamt of producing it in Wilmington for quite some time.
“I’ve been asking for many years to put it in the program,” Kennedy details. “This year it was exactly right to do it alongside the other shows around it.”
Opera House just closed “Rent” and “Les Misérables.” With “Oklahoma!” filling out its summer billing, they’re packing a powerhouse of musicals from the American theatre canon.
The preparation that goes into a show like “Oklahoma!” involves many hours of rehearsal. A lot of the pre-production work by the director, assistant director and choreographer (Jason Aycock), costume designers (Debbie Shue and Susannah Douthit) and musical director (Lorene Walsh) takes place before rehearsals commence. The cast has spent six days a week in preparation for the show, which opens Wednesday.
“We’ve a very short rehearsal process at Opera House, so we have to be very prepared,” Kennedy says. “We started July 6th and we open the 31st—that’s less than a month of rehearsals, so they’re very intense.”
The cast includes local veterans Kendra Goehring-Garrett and Nygel Robinson (Laurey Williams and Culry McClain), Justin Smith (Jud Fry), Jason Aycock (Will Parker), Jason Hatfield (Ali Hakem), along with an ensemble of about 44 characters overall. A 12-piece band will orchestrate some of the most recognizable songs in musical theatre, such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Kansas City” and of course the title track, “Oklahoma!”
The Broadway sensation is set in 1906, before Oklahoma became a state. Based in an Indian territory, with intense rivalries between cowboys and local farmers, a love story unfolds between Curly, a handsome cowboy, and Laurey, a headstrong farmer. Stubbornness gets in the way of each character’s feelings, and Jud, who works on Laurey’s farm, attempts to come between them.
Meanwhile Laurey’s friend, Ado Annie, finds herself torn between her cowboy of a boyfriend, Will Parker, and Ali Hakim, a peddler who is also a ladies’ man. While her boyfriend is away in Kansas City, she has starts to fall for the peddler, who isn’t interested in marrying her.
The creation of the set is carried out by Scenic Asylum. It will be based on the recent Broadway revival, which includes the house, the barn and the schoolhouse. Terry Collins details, “Because it takes place in the early 20th century, the scenery is very rustic, wide open countryside and big blue skies.”
The costumes are period based and historically references. “These people were pioneers; they were hardworking famers and cowboys,” Kennedy says. “Our costume team is dedicated to making things historically accurate and it would be what people would have worn in 1906.”
Tickets for “Oklahoma!”—the recepient of numerous awards, including Drama Desk, Tony and Olivier, not to mention a 1955 Academy Award for the movie adaptation—are priced at $27 and the musical will be performed at Thalian Hall from July 31st to August 18th.
Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar
Opera House Theatre Company
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $25 plus Thalian restoration fee, $2