SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — “Oklahoma!” is undoubtedly one of the most significant plays in the history of American theater. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic — the duo’s debut collaboration — was among the first productions to incorporate song and dance into a coherent story when it opened on Broadway in 1943. Since then the show has become one of the most frequently staged musicals in the country, with performances taking place everywhere from Broadway to community theater.
Such a widely-seen show could easily be mistaken for having nothing new to offer, but Seton Hall Theatre’s upcoming production of “Oklahoma!” seeks to prove otherwise. Director Janeece Freeman Clark said those who attend her show’s run at the South Orange Performing Arts Center from April 20 through April 22 can pick up on how closely the play’s themes of coming together as a community despite people’s differences apply to today’s world.
In a United States where many immigrants and non-immigrants alike are questioning what their home is, Clark said those themes are particularly relevant today.
“We hope that (audience members) will see the correlation between (the play) and what’s happening today and what’s been happening through the course of time,” Clark, who is perhaps best known for starring on the PBS children’s series “Sheira and Loli’s Dittydoodle Works,” told the News-Record in an April 17 phone interview. “And they can be introspective about it and say ‘What are the prejudices I have?’ and ‘What are some ways that I can work through those for the betterment of mankind?’”
Those are some profound questions to ask following a mostly ebullient love story between charismatic cowboy Curly McLain and independent-minded Laurey Williams. Yet Clark said all one has to do is look at the setting of the piece to understand the play’s deeper message. The director said she urged her cast to consider what life would have been like in the Oklahoma Territory of 1906, which was filled with displaced people of varying backgrounds. The characters in the musical struggle with issues of discrimination, she said, yet they choose to put aside their differences for the sake of working together toward statehood.
That is a lesson from which the modern American citizen can learn, Clark said. And it was also a conversation she used to get her actors into the mindset of their characters.
“They realized they’re not so much different from us and a lot of the struggles we’re dealing with today,” Clark said. “Everyone tries to find their place and at the same time wants to feel as though they’re all treated as equals regardless of their background.”
Another way Clark got her cast members to relate to their parts was by collaborating with them to apply their own personalities to their roles. Instead of mapping out a whole performance prior to auditions as some directors do, she said she worked with her actors to build unique versions of the traditional characters based on their own ideas and experiences. As a result, she said the SHU Theatre portrayal of Ado Annie Carnes is a lot different than her usual ditzy characterization, instead taking on a more feminist stance and acts a certain way to get what she wants. Likewise, the villainous Jud Fry is presented in a more sympathetic light after actor and director explored his humanity and motivations.
Toni Gardner, who plays Laurey, admitted that it was initially hard for her to access her character after seeing what so many other actresses had done with the part. But after Clark told her to be herself in the role, Gardner said she realized exactly what she needed to do.
“I kind of took a step back and I tried to put myself, my experiences, my actual thoughts and feelings into her,” Gardner told the News-Record in an April 17 phone interview, describing the resulting character as similar to how she was originally written yet also reflective of her own self. “She has her sweet and her innocent side, but she also is a tough cookie. And I think that I tried to really (show that) with her relationships — especially with Curly, especially with Ado Annie. She knows what she wants and she’s not afraid to let people know that. She’s not going to get pushed around.”
Gus Glazov said he also struggled with his portrayal of Curly at first after not being able to relate to the character’s cool and cocky demeanor. Eventually though, Glazov said he learned to connect with the character’s internal qualities such as his eagerness always to do his best. And of course, he said, simply relaxing and having fun with the role made it easier.
It also helped Glazov to have great castmates with whom he could work. The actor said being friends with his costars offstage led to an underlying sense of joviality that made tense parts of the play less emotionally taxing. It also made it easier to offer suggestions to each other on how they should perform a scene, he said.
Plus, Glazov said the fact that everyone is so talented enhances the play’s quality exponentially.
“So much of acting depends on not necessarily your ability but the abilities of others,” Glazov told the News-Record in an April 14 phone interview. “The more that they do, the better the show is. That’s all been one huge learning experience for me — just how dependent you are on other people on the stage.”
Gardner agreed that being close to the rest of the cast was beneficial to everyone, especially because it better allowed them to portray the characters’ familiarity with one another onstage. She also appreciated the guidance she received both from Clark and Marni Raab, the Broadway star with whom she was paired as part of the Broadway Buddies program Clark runs through her Vanguard Theater Company. Gardner said she has learned so much while preparing for “Oklahoma!,” from singing tips to the importance of preparing for a role. Those lessons will definitely come in handy when she starts to pursue a professional acting career, she said.
Along with Gardner, Glazov and four other cast members from “Oklahoma!” were also paired with stars from such major shows as “The Book of Mormon,” “Cagney” and “On Your Feet” through the Broadway Buddies program. Clark said these mentorships can do a world of good for young performers, and not just as a way to solicit acting advice from veterans. She said the students also receive insight into the practicalities of the acting profession, such as how to audition and how to balance one’s personal and professional lives. That is exactly the type of guidance she wishes she’d had upon launching her own career, she said.
Clark hopes the relationships built through the Broadway Buddies program will last into the future, beyond the students’ graduating from Seton Hall. She also wishes that her neighbors in the South Orange-Maplewood community will check out “Oklahoma!” at SOPAC. They won’t regret it, she promised.
“It’s one of those feel-good shows that people leave with a song on their lips,” Clark said. “Though there are many dark moments, hope and love remain.”
Admission to “Oklahoma!” is free, though reservations are recommended. For information, visit http://www.sopacnow.org/seton-hall-theatre-oklahoma/.
Photos Courtesy of Nicholas Zeitlinger