Oklahoma! – yes, the exclamation point is part of the title – is one of those those shows that everyone knows by heart – or do they? It’s part of our shared cultural heritage, and most of us can probably sing the first line or two of the title song, since it actually begins with the title. You know, “O-o-o-o-o…klahoma, where the… something something goes something something…” and that’s where our memories start to cloud. It’s actually now the official state song of Oklahoma. A few of us may also connect the familiar song “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” to the musical, and might even know the next line “oh what a beautiful day,” and the basic tune. We may even have heard or used the expression about the corn being “as high as an elephant’s eye,” whether or not we knew its source. Having been a mainstay of high school and community theatre repertoires for decades, Oklahoma! is something we all know backwards and forwards.
Or is it? I fell into that trap too, realizing only recently that I have never seen the show live, and to my knowledge have only seen the famous film version once, when I was in 5th grade or so. And in those days I was much more interested in spotting the mom from The Partridge Family (i.e. Shirley Jones) in the lead, playing opposite the real-life father of one of the girls from Petticoat Junction (i.e. Gordon MacRae, father of Meredith), with Mr. Douglas from Green Acres (Eddie Albert) providing comic relief. Then I realized that for years, I’ve been mistakenly thinking one of the big hits from the show, “People Will Say We’re in Love,” was from South Pacific! That’s not too bad a lapse, though, since the same composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote both. Along with Sound of Music, The King and I, and the tv Cinderella. Wait, the same guys wrote all of those? Exactly. Meaning that Oklahoma! may be worth a little more attention than we might naturally be inclined to give something that we think is so familiar already. Especially since it’s opening at Town Theatre in just a few days, featuring some of Columbia’s top talent.
Would you believe Hugh Jackman – yes, The Wolverine – starred as the lead, heroic Curly the cowboy, in a London revival in 1998? Yep, he was doing big musicals long before the film of Les Miserables. When that version transferred to Broadway in 2002, Curly was played by Patrick Wilson. Yes, the second Nite Owl in Watchmen! That revival was nominated for many Tony Awards; the Tonys didn’t exist yet when the musical first came out in 1943, but it’s a frequent nominee and winner whenever it’s revived. Harry Groener was even nominated for a Tony as Will (the juvenile love interest in a subplot) in a 1979 revival, and yes, that’s the guy who later played the evil Mayor of Sunnydale on Buffy (well golly!) so there’s that.
So why is Oklahoma! such a big deal? The music of Rodgers and Hammerstein is certainly a large part. This was their first collaboration together, after many hits with other writing partners. How it came into being is fascinating though. The story was originally a non-musical play from 1930 called Green Grow the Lilacs, that wasn’t a big hit, even though it was about settlers in Indian Territory only a few decades removed from when that was actually happening, and even though there was serious star power in the cast: future film star Franchot Tone as Curly, future country music star Tex Ritter (yes, father of John!) as a cowpoke, and Lee Strasberg (yes, the Method acting teacher, and Hyman Roth in Godfather II !) as a comic peddler. Producers saw a summer stock production of Lilacs, years later, that incorporated authentic square dancing and folk music from the period/locale, and thought this might make a better musical than straight play.And boy did it. It ran for more than five years, a record for Broadway in those days, unbroken for twelve years, and was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize. And this was right in the middle of World War II, when there were plenty of other things on the public’s mind, and not a lot of disposable income for entertainment. The two biggest components that both critics and audiences raved about then, as now, were the way in which the songs and dances became an integral part of the story-telling process – previously musicals often just stopped the action long enough for the leads to break into song, as a chorus entered to back them up – and an unheard-of extended ballet sequence (it’s part of a dream that plays out live on stage) choreographed by Agnes DeMille, one of the titans of the dance world in those days.
So that’s the show. What’s special about this production? I’d say the people – lots of good folks that Jasper loves are in this one. Frank Thompson directs – he’s better known as a prolific comic actor, appearing as everyone from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Igor in Young Frankenstein, but he has directed shows like Chicago and A Christmas Story at the Kershaw Fine Arts Center, Ho Ho Ho at Columbia Children’s Theatre, and 9 to 5, Stand By Your Man, and South Pacific at Town Theatre. Plus he brought his Chicago cast to perform at the first even Jasper ever held at the Arcade, back in early 2012. I had just recently met him, after reviewing him in Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings, and making some wisecrack about how ironic hipsters from the Whig would douse themselves in lighter fluid and look for lighters rather than sit through that show’s wholesome Christmas music… and he still thought he got a good review! Well, he did, after a fashion. Christy Shealy Mills choreographs, and we interviewed her last spring for this blog; you can still read all about her here. Daniel Gainey is music director, and he’s done outstanding work as both actor (in In the Next Room at Trustus and Legally Blonde at Workshop) and as music director for shows like Songs for a New World and Camp Rock the Musical at Workshop. Lori Stepp is costumer, Danny Harrington is scenic designer, and we profiled him in the July 2012 issue of Jasper – there’s an expanded version of that story here.
Then there’s the cast. Heroine Laurey is played by Haley Sprankle. Yep, one of Jasper‘s new interns, whose work has already appeared on this blog twice in the past week. The first time I ever saw her on stage was in the ensemble Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; as the curtain opened, she and several other dancers were frozen in place, and her extension went up to Mars. A few months later I wrote of her in Grease: “She has one of the stronger voices in the cast (you can always tell where she is in group numbers) and is one of the better dancers as well. Add comic timing to that, and Sprankle is a remarkable triple threat.” Two years after that I wrote this about her performance in Biloxi Blues: “Winsome Haley Sprankle shines as Daisy, the adorable sort of red-headed Catholic school girl that we’d all go fight Hitler for in a heartbeat.” In other words, I was a fan long before she came aboard the Jasper team. Bryan Meyers, who was in the cast of Les Miserables (winner of the Free Times Best of Columbia award for best production) plays Curly opposite her. Will Parker, the second lead, is played by Parker Byun, who’s done good work in plenty of shows recently, including playing the lead in Tarzan the Musical last year.
But wait, there’s more! Haley’s father Rob Sprankle, who joins Jasper as a staff photographer in the issue that comes out in about 48 hours, plays the peddler Ali Hakim. He’s had roles ranging from the King in The King and I to Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Opposite him (in a triangle with the Will character) as Ado Annie is Sirena Dib, seen as Fiona in Shrek the Musical this past spring, as the lead in Cinderella at Workshop, and as Martie in Grease when Haley Sprankle was playing Frenchy, and Frank Thompson was Vince Fontaine. She too will be joining the Jasper staff, plus we featured her in the centerfold of the November 2012 Jasper, along with some other talented young performers. That same issue also profiled Will Moreau, who plays Annie’s father. Other principal roles include Kathy Hartzog as Aunt Eller, Kevin Loeper as Jud Fry, and Kristy O’Keefe dancing the ballet role of Dream Laurey.
And that, parders, is why I think Oklahoma! is worth checking out. Good people, good material, and the chance to see it done live. Oklahoma! opens this Friday, September 19 and runs through October 11; Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15-25 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 799- 2510. For more information, visit www.towntheatre.com.