Having a grand time

Karla Craft, as Aunt Eller, left, and Christopher Day, as Will Parker, dance the two-step, following the “return” of Day’s character from Kansas City. Duncan Little Theatre’s presentation of “Oklahoma!” will begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Simmons Center theater.

Oklahoma is not that big a state, but it takes a lot of people to tell its story. Duncan Little Theatre will bring a “cast of thousands” to its productions of “Oklahoma!” beginning Friday at the Simmons Center to tell that story in grand style.

To mark the state’s Centennial year, DLT began planning months ago and recruiting volunteers for every aspect of the production. Whereas for most of its productions, the cast and crew rehearse a matter of days or weeks, for “Oklahoma!” everyone involved has worked for months.

All that preparation will be showcased in performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and again Sept. 21 and 22 at the Simmons Center. A special matinee performance will be presented at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Lynn Riggs, who wrote “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the basis for the musical, was the son of a cattleman, and of Cherokee Indian descent. He was born in 1899 on a farm near Claremore during territorial days. “Green Grow the Lilacs” was produced by the Theatre Guild in New York. It was rated one of the 10 best plays of the year. Riggs started writing it far from his home state. He began working on it in the Cafe De Deux Magots on the Left Bank in Paris, when he was there in 1928 on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He finished the play five months later in the south of France.

“Green Grow the Lilacs” is all about life in Oklahoma at the turn of the century. This work was a massive success as produced by the Theatre Guild in New York in 1931 and provided a handful of future western movie actors with steady work and their first taste of success as performers, including a young law student turned singer/actor named Woodward Ritter, better known as “Tex” Ritter.

A synopsis of “Oklahoma!” says, “This is the romantic play of pioneer life on which the musical Oklahoma is based. A tender and beautiful love story is told in the colorful language of cowboy life. Laurey loves Curly, the cowhand, but he is too cocksure and jaunty so Laurey uses eternal feminine wiles. A dark-minded ranch hand is also attracted to the lithe, spirited Laurey and she is frightened of him. His threatening presence hangs over the romance. On Curly and Laurey’s wedding night, in the course of a frontier chivaree, the inflamed jealousy of the ranch hand breaks out and Curly is forced to kill him.”

Independently of each other, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had been attracted to making a musical based on “Green Grow the Lilacs.” When Jerome Kern declined Hammerstein’s offer to work on such a project and Moss Hart refused Rodgers’ offer to do the same, Rodgers and Hammerstein began their first collaboration. The epic “Oklahoma!” (1943) marked a revolution in musical drama.

The first production was called “Away We Go!” and opened in the Shubert Theatre in New Haven in March 1943. Only a few changes were made before it opened on Broadway, but two would prove significant: the addition of a show-stopping number, “Oklahoma!” and the decision to retitle the musical after it.

The original Broadway production opened March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre. At the time, roles in musicals were usually filled by actors who could sing, but Rodgers and Hammerstein chose the reverse, casting singers who could act. As a result, there were also no stars in the production, another unusual step. Nevertheless, the production ran for a then-unprecedented 2,212 performances, finally closing on May 29, 1948.

In 1955, it was adapted to make an Academy Award-winning musical film. The film’s soundtrack was No. 1 on the 1956 album charts.

Richard T. Johnson, also a native of Oklahoma, is once again working with the Duncan Little Theatre as guest director. Johnson also directed DLT’s 2006 production of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Recently, Johnson has directed productions for Blue Moon Productions, an independent theater company in Lawton, where he is the artistic director.

The play’s characters and the actors who play them include Curly McLain, William Dolman; Laurey, Sarah Adkins; Aunt Eller, Karla Craft; Jud Frey, Don Gooch; Will Parker, Christopher Day; Ado Annie, Laura McCormick; Ali Hakim, Justin Sullivan; Andrew Carnes, Travis Adkins; Gertie Cummings, Megan Bachelor; Ike Skidmore, Brad Johnson; Cord Elam, Gary Williamson; Dream Laurey, Emily Criswell; Slim, Chris Cowan; Ellen, Rachel Hadlock; Kate, Hannah Barton; Jeff, Jeff Beyer; and Mike, Sam Moffatt.

The actors will have a large chorus and dancers to help tell the story: Ian Beyer, Sharon Burum, Beth Cowan, Anna Criswell, Taylor Dimery, Alyssa Flesher, Chloe Harrison, Syd Henricks, Hilary Hunt, Mikalea Ivy, Victoria McGouran, Hudson Moore, Catelin Morris, Rylee Rich, Lori Taylor and Emilee White.

Many of the people involved appear in more than one capacity.

It is, after all, a musical and could not be produced without an orchestra. Al Crabtree is the conductor. Other musicians include violin, Samantha Street and Donna Brox; cello, Barbara Pickthorn; flute, Jennifer Bivens; oboe, Ruthanna Rhoades; clarinet, Susan Hass and Melissa Caswell; bassoon, Danna Frost; trumpet, Joel Wilkinson and Chad Heitman; trombone, Adam Gutierrez; guitar, Randell Brown; piano, Susan Duell; and percussion, Boston Brown.

The audience will immediately recognize such longtime favorite songs as “The Surrey With The Fringe on Top,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re In Love” and, of course, “Oklahoma!”

In addition to Johnson, the production crew includes producer, Gina Flesher; stage manager, Ladd Polk; vocal director, Stacy Jennings; pianist, Susan Duell; choreographer, Paula Harrison; costume mistress, Gayla Mosteller; costume assistants: Sherry Peck, Dee Ledwak, Peggy Bagwell and Gina Flesher; property master, Judy Crawford; props assistants: Susan Hadlock, Nova Parton and Tara Harper; set design, Ian Robb; set construction: Ian Robb, Ladd Polk, Nova Parton, Dakota Polk, Linda Moon, Michael Foss, Judy Crawford, Susan Hadlock and Tara Harper; ropes: BR Reddy, Tom Dealy and Roy Grabman; spots, Chandler Peckenpaugh; makeup artist, Rodna Cherry; makeup assistants: Tawana Dodd and Peggy Bagwell; personal dresser (Laurey), Beth Ann Ewing; house manager, Liz Kuykendall; box office: Sharon Moffatt, LaVonna Funkhouser, Mikayla Windham, Janna Lovett, Mike and Sharon Davis, and John and Jan Edwards; hospitality: Randy Burum, Beth Ann Hough; ushers: Pam Creekmore, Nita Creekmore, Lesa and Dewey Ivey, Paula Rich, LaDonna Brown, and the Rush Springs Crimsom Sweeties.

Tickets will be available at the door, or call DLT at 580-252-8331 or the Simmons Center at 252-2900.

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