Haldane Drama presents classic musical
It may be hard to fathom, but in its day, the musical Oklahoma!, now recalled by most as homespun America, was instead a bold experiment by its creators, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
In their first collaboration, the men adapted a play into an early example of a “book musical” in which the songs and dances further the action, rather than being presented as adornment.
Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, during World War II, and has spent the ensuing decades as a mainstay of theater companies and school productions. Set in 1906 on a farm in what was then “Indian territory,” it follows Laurey Williams and her courtship by rivals Curly McLain and Jud Fry. A second romance involves Will Parker and his fiancee, Ado Annie. It includes the song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.”
Martha Mechalakos, who directs the drama program at Haldane High School, feels that Oklahoma! is far from cotton-candied sweetness. “People always forget the darkness” in the musical, she says. “They only remember the great songs, the charming cowboy and the girl he likes, and the other girl’s not being able to decide between two suitors.”
The musical includes a 15-minute “dream ballet” that the production’s choreographer Katie Bissinger, owner of the Ballet Arts Studio in Beacon, calls “a very potent ending for the first act in that it reveals subconscious psychological conflict to the audience through dance.”
She notes that Agnes de Mille, who choreographed the original production, was a classically trained ballet dancer “who believed strongly in her chorus dancers’ drawing on specifically developed characters and individualization. I am also a huge believer in pushing each of these students to further this story in that way when they dance it.” A classically trained ballet dancer, Olivia Flanagan, will dance the role of Dream Laurey and several students who have taken classes at Bissinger’s studio are also involved.
Members of the ensemble will appear at all four performances on March 17 to 19, while the leads and supporting roles are double-cast, with each actor performing in two shows. This provides understudies but also requires twice as many rehearsals.
Many of the upperclass members are pros at double-casting. Elaine Llewellyn, who plays Ado Annie, called it a double-edged sword. “I struggle with comparison when shows are double-cast, but it’s interesting and inspiring seeing how different actors bring out the different sides of characters,” she says.
Her counterpart, May Columb, says “double-casting can be an interesting way to interpret a character from two different, yet awesome, perspectives. There might be ground for comparison or insecurity, but in our production, that is not the case. We all admire each other’s work and each cast brings light to their characters.”
For Alex Danilov, who plays Will Parker, double-casting “allows us to take pieces from our counterpart’s performances and incorporate them based on what we think works.” His double, Oliver Petkus, says he “went into it trying to keep my own take on the character and still do, but as rehearsal’s been going on, Alex has been doing things onstage and we talk about scenes and I take notes.”
Sam Bates, who plays Curly, says he likes “to keep my initial interpretation intact to keep each cast’s performance unique.” His double, Conrad White, says he benefits from “the help of a friend who was working the same role.” In addition, “double-casting provides me with security when I can’t make it to a rehearsal. Knowing someone always has the blocking you missed, and vice versa, is a comfort.”
Sophie Sabin, who plays Laurey, says she enjoys talking with her double, Maya Gelber, about the role they share, and to see her interpretation. “I’m super-close with Maya, so it makes talking about our character exciting and fun, and it becomes a creative outlet.” Gelber says she feels the same. “It’s comforting to be confident that we’ll both do the part justice in our own ways.”
There is still pressure, even with a backup, says Petkus. “If you miss rehearsal, you need to get back on track, especially if you miss choreography.” But, Bates says, double-casting eliminates the actor’s fear of “getting sick right before a show.”
“It’s a relief to be able to have efficient rehearsals when someone’s out,” says Llewellyn. “Your double in the other cast is also a great resource to review and talk through challenges — you feel so much less alone and stuck when you’re struggling because they can understand.”
The pride of doing one’s best factors into the emotions, too, says Gelber. “Despite the double-casting, I still feel a sense of responsibility to the show, the cast and myself to be able to have this story told with my voice included.”
Sabin adds: “It honestly provides an incentive to keep pushing. I have only two chances at this performance, and I want to enjoy it as much as I can. If I’m sick, Maya gets all the fun. I love her, but I’m excited for my chance, too!”
Oklahoma! will be performed at the Haldane School auditorium, 15 Craigside Drive, in Cold Spring at 7 p.m. on March 17, 2 and 7 p.m. on March 18 and 2 p.m. on March 19. Tickets are $15 ($8 for students and seniors) at showtix4u.com or at the door. Children ages 8 and younger accompanied by an adult are admitted free to the matinees.