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UNCSA recreates ‘’40s version of Oklahoma!

by Lenise Willis

Jennifer Webb (Ado Annie) is fitted for a costume backstage in the UNCSA production of Oklahoma! (photo by Donald Dietz)

When Oklahoma! first premiered in 1943 it was a revolution in American theater. One can only imagine the spark in the audience’s eyes as they watched the first musical written by Broadway legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, seeing for the first time a production guided not just by acting, but by song and dance as well.

But since its heyday, Oklahoma!’s production history has been on a downward spiral. As the No. 1 choice for amateur theater company productions, Oklahoma! arises more memories about a terrible high school play you were forced to watch than of its revolutionary spark.

Saving Oklahoma! from devolution and sweeping off the collected dust from amateur theater is UNC School of the Arts, whose production of Oklahoma!, directed by Broadway star Terrance Mann, aimed at making it as close as possible to its original version premiered in the ’40s.

But pulling off such a production is no easy task, and it took UNCSA more than a year to conceptualize, research and put it into action. In the end, it’s easy to see that their hard work paid off, their revival a success.

The production, of course, still has the same complicated love triangles and loveable characters, notably Ado Annie, who just “can’t say ‘no.’” Jennifer Webb, who spoke with the original Ado Annie Celeste Holm, gave an authentic performance and easily earns the title of everyone’s favorite character.

But it is important to note that acting is not the only tool that drives Oklahoma! It is just as driven by the live music and lyrics, dance, the ballet and tap interludes.

The dance choreography, recreated by Gemze de Lappe, 86, an original dancer in the ’40s Broadway touring production, further turned the clock back in time. It was interesting to see how theaters had changed some of the movements, notably the arm movements, over time.

In UNCSA’s version, there were a few awkward moments when the dancers unnaturally flutter their arms above their heads. But seeing the different version helped to set the play out of modern time and made the audience feel more a part of the decade in which it was written.

The dream scene truly captured the gracefulness of UNCSA’s ballet troupe, directed by Warren Conover, ballet master. When Laurey (Rebecca Mayes) falls asleep, she dreams of her life with Curly (Kyle Guglielmo) and Jud Fry (Braxton Molinaro).

As Laurey and Curly begin the dream scene, a set of lookalikes mimic them in the background. When Mayes and Guglielmo slip offstage, the spotlight then shines on the background, where dancers Tommy Burnett (Dream Curly) and Jillian Ratledge (Dream Laurey) take over. Using the dancer lookalikes added a touch of magic to the dream scene and helped remove it from reality.

The orchestra, with a newly restored score and the same number of instruments as the original, immediately set UNCSA’s production above the run of the mill. This was an important element, as it gave the music an equal part in the presentation; it was not overshadowed by the singing, acting and dancing onstage.

The live music, directed by renown conductor John Mauceri, UNCSA chancellor, not only made the audience feel like they were at a quality production, but it helped onlookers to visualize even more what it would have been like to see Oklahoma! back in 1943.

The set, designed with the help of Scenic Supervisor Howard Jones, was vivid and beautiful, and it too resembled the 1943 original. The school scoured museums and homes alike to find old scrapbook clippings and pictures that featured the original set.

The set design was the biggest difference I’ve seen compared to past performances. The bright colors gave fresh life to the play, but without being too complicated or distracting, although there were times when I looked away from the characters just to gaze at the rich blue hills in the background.

The larger number of set changes and set pieces was also surprising. A forest of trees, a few stalks of corn and haystacks were placed in front of the backdrop to give a wonderful 3D effect. The backdrop itself utilized different angles to expand the scene past the stage and give the appearance that the corn fields or hills went on for miles.

In the end, being an all-schools production, UNCSA had the depth necessary to pull off all aspects of Oklahoma!. Pulling together its departments of music, dance, drama, and design and production, it successfully breathed new life back into Oklahoma!

wanna go?

UNCSA will perform Oklahoma! at the Stevens Center, 405 W. 4th Street, Winston-Salem, May 4-6, 8 p.m.; May 7, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; May 8, 2 p.m. Tickets are $43-$150 depending on seats. For tickets call 721–1945 or visit www.uncsa.edu/performances.

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