Director and cast members discuss their thoughts on Manly Music Society's upcoming production of a classic musical love story. 

In the early 1940s composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II came together for the first time to create a musical love story set in Oklahoma territory at the turn of the century, just prior to it receiving statehood. The show first hit the stage in 1943 where it was a smash hit, with critics praising its cast, its romantic storyline, sly humour, catchy and memorable score and recreation of America's frontier era.

Oklahoma's popularity ensured that it ran on Broadway for 2,243 performances, which was unprecedented at the time. Since its inception it's gone on to win countless awards and even a Pulitzer prize. Its critically acclaimed 1955 film adaptation was also honoured by the USA National Film Registry in 2007 for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.   

From the 18th26th of May, this award winning musical will return to the stage, performed by Manly Musical Society (MMS), a youth-theatre company that since 2008 has provided the community in Sydney's Northern Beaches district with opportunities in musical theatre that have not existed in the area since the original Manly Musical Society closed down around 80 years ago.   

For those unaware of Oklahoma's well-known story, the musical is set in the American Old West during the early 1900s with dominant themes including love and romance as well as an escalating hostility between ranchers and farmers. Bringing Oklahoma's plot to life is a stream of colourful and memorable characters such as Will, a down-on-his-luck cowboy who goes to great lengths to satisfy the father of his fiancé Ado Annie, whose inability to turn down boyfriends results in a forced wedding engagement to the scheming travelling salesman, Ali Hakim.

However, the main focus of the musical is Curly McLain, a charismatic but over-confident cowboy, and his troubled interactions with love-interest Laurey Williams, an intelligent and headstrong country girl who lives a seemingly carefree farm life with her Aunt Eller.

Portraying Curly is Chris Lewis, a 24-year old graduate from WA Academy of Performing Arts. Currently signed with Opera Australia and having been actively involved in opera over the past 5 years, with previous theatre credits including “Dancaire” in Carmen and “Sciarrone” in Tosca, Chris notes that almost every character he has portrayed to date has the common attribute of carrying a gun. “Maybe I look like the kind of guy that needs to be carrying a weapon,” he jokes. 

Although Oklahoma's dialogue-heavy story lies in stark contrast to Chris' previous opera credits, he has always wanted to perform Oklahoma's famous, classic and iconic score, including one of his favourite songs, Surrey with the Fringe on Top, as well as portray the role of Curly who he describes as a “real classic character in the realms of music theatre”. “He's a larrikin, he’s got a big heart without a doubt but he's wary of wearing it on his sleeve which creates some insecurities and jealousy. He wants to be everybody’s friend and I think he has the support of those around him”, says Chris. “He has this massive ability to charm with a wink and a smile which is just so much fun to explore”.

One character who manages to resist Curly's charm (or at least she pretends to) is Oklahoma's lead female role Laurey, portrayed by 24-year old Sarah Alison Dwyer, a music student in music theatre at AIM and a big fan of this classic musical. “I love the character, the songs… Everything!” She exclaims enthusiastically. 

While fully enjoying her first production with Manly Musical Society, Sarah says she finds that Laurey has a familiar personality, similar in some aspects to her own. “She’s young, sensitive and a bit naive; her emotions are a bit everywhere – and I can relate to that”, says Sarah. “She comes across as strong-willed, knows what she wants but underneath is just as confused as any girl when it comes to a man”.

Sarah says that Laurey and Curley's relationship reveals their stubbornness with neither character “wanting to admit how much they like the other”. This results in a rather complicated love story unfolding between the two characters, with Chris describing their interactions as “childish”.

“They dance around their love for each other without coming right out and declaring it,” he says. “I think everybody around them can see it but they play this little game of cat and mouse that eventually leads to people getting hurt”.

Their vulnerabilities are soon brought forefront when their relationship, and even their lives, are threatened by farmhand Judd Fry, whose lack of charm, sensitivity and unfortunate low social status leads to him relying on intimidation and eventually violence to get what he wants. 

To help transform Oklahoma's humble story into something truly amazing and memorable, MMS have recruited the services of Bizzie Productions, including director Dave Izzard. According to Dave what separates Oklahoma from many other musical love stories is that the relationships are already developed, allowing the musical to avoid common clichés. 

“There is no scene where the star struck lovers first see each other and fall hopelessly and madly in love at first sight. This actually makes the story more realistic. There's a history to these relationships which as a director I need to glean from the inferences in the dialogue, as opposed to slapping the audience in the face with a corny 'you had me at hello” type romance”, Dave explains.

Dave says that while Oklahoma is often mistaken for a “glossy story book piece with pretty music, bright colours and a formulaic storyline” that focuses on the typical “good triumphs over evil” scenario, beneath its surface is a much deeper theme of “personal change” and “sacrifice”.  His vision for MMS' Oklahoma  doesn't attempt to mimic the Broadway version, the 1955 movie or the 1999 remake. Instead his inspiration comes from Green Grows the Lilac, a play written by Lynn Riggs in the 1930s which was later used as a basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein when they created this award winning musical.  “The plays' dialogue is very gritty and provides an extra level of depth when determining the characters in Oklahoma”, says Dave.

By staying true to the characters' personalities in their original stage title, Dave says that he hopes to emphasise greater complexity in Oklahoma's characters, such as the antagonist Judd Fry who in Rigg's original work is represented as “quite an unbalanced individual with a darkness that you only get a glimpse of in the dialogue within the musical itself”. 

Working alongside Dave are his fellow Bizzie members: Producer David Bleier, who has 20 years experience in the performing arts and has produced shows in Melbourne and Sydney;  Musical Director Chris Bennie, who has been involved in musical performance since the age of 8; and Choreographer Jess Grimmond, who received high acclaim for her recent choreography in SYMT's production of My Son Pinocchio.  Together they have used the full talent of their cast, with the aim to create a show where neither the music nor choreography are predictable.   “Audiences will discover a new originality to both the music and the choreography”, says Dave. “My team and I endeavour to do things differently as much as possible, whilst staying true to the intent of the piece”

Oklahoma! will run from the 18th to the 26th of May at Star of the Sea Theatre, Manly

To Book Tickets Phone 1300 240 715 (additional fees may apply for phone bookings) or visit http://manlymusicalsociety.com/tickets.html

 

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