Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase star in the official state centennial production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!
"I've gotten my accent back since I've been here for rehearsals," says O'Hara. "That took about two seconds. Oklahoma was a great place to grow up. I'm getting married next month [to Greg Naughton], and I sometimes dream about raising my children in a place like this, where it's so easy and the people are so nice and trustworthy."
Do O'Hara and her fellow Oklahoman/Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth ever get together tand talk about their shared roots? "We do, sometimes. I grew up in Elk City, but I was born in Broken Arrow, where Kristin is from. She and I have that in common, and we also had the same voice teacher, Florence Birdwell, at Oklahoma City University."
Perhaps surprisingly, O'Hara has never before been in a production of Oklahoma! -- "but I was a Surrey Singer in college," she hastens to note. "Basically, the reason Oklahoma! is so popular in this state is because of that group, which still exists. They go around the state and sing from the musical. So I've sung Laurey's songs and other songs from the show, but I never got to play the role till now. This is going to be very emotional for me; Oklahoma was the first musical I ever saw, at a place called Discovery Land in Tulsa. I saw it when I was four, but I still remember it. I think I must have caught the musical theater bug at that point."
Chase, who is originally from Kentucky, had never set foot in Oklahoma before he arrived to rehearse this production, but he's enjoying his new surroundings. "Everybody who lives on the East Coast thinks that Oklahoma is the same as Kentucky and Kentucky is the same as Kansas, but they're all different," he remarks. "It's cool to be out here. You forget that so much open expanse exists."
This is his first crack at the role of Curly, though he came close to landing it when he auditioned for the 2002 Broadway revival: "I was kind of being pursued for it when the show was going to transfer sooner from London. I auditioned for Trevor Nunn -- but then I got busy with something else and Patrick Wilson was becoming a huge movie star, so I didn't get the part!" Now that he's got the part, Chase finds the material rewarding. "On the page, the dialogue almost reads like L'il Abner, because it's written sort of phonetically. But, when you get into it, there's a lot of depth there. And, of course, the songwriting is great. It can be a challenge to sing a song that everyone knows by heart, like 'The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,' and try to make it fresh. I like to dive in and try to get below the surface. Even when I've replaced someone in a show, I've always approached it like it's a new piece that's never been done before."
Chase has high praise for O'Hara and his other colleagues, who include Rob Hunt as Jud Fry, Courtney Balan as Ado Annie, Nathaniel Shaw as Will Parker, Melinda Tanner as Aunt Eller, Addie Tomlinson as Dream Laurey, and Tony nominee John Selya as Dream Curley. "Our cast is pretty phenomenal," he says, "and everyone involved is taking really good care of the show. In our minds, I guess we all have this horrible version of Oklahoma! that we think every high school or every summer stock does; but our director, Nick Demos is so adamant about being genuine, real, and entertaining. This production is obviously a big deal, because it's the 100th anniversary of the state."
Says Demos, Lyric Theatre's artistic director, "I approached this production with the concept, 'Where was Oklahoma 100 years ago?' Lynn Riggs, who wrote Green Grow the Lilacs [upon which the musical was based], was from Oklahoma, and so much of the book of the musical is taken directly from the play. Some of it is literally line for line. The material is so great; there's a reason why it has lived so long. So you don't need to try to do something new-fangled with it. You just have the actors say the lines and sing the songs with the right intentions, and it plays.
"We're going very real with the scenery," adds Demos. "We're using the colors of Oklahoma -- the red dirt, the green grass, the big, expansive, blue sky. Because our stage is so large, Laurey's house is life-size. I did a ton of research on what that house would have looked like, and I had a great conversation with Lynn Riggs' great-niece. She sent me pictures of the people on whom these characters were based: Laurey was a woman named Laura Thompson, who had an Aunt Ella Murphy. It was great to see the reality of these women."
The stars of Lyric's Oklahoma! each have their favorite moments in the show. "I'm such a cheeseball," O'Hara admits, "so I love the moment when Curly finally proposes to Laurey and she says, 'Of course I'll marry you, if you want me to.' Will is so good, and we're having the best time in that scene." For his part, Chase says that "'Surrey With the Fringe' is a fun number because I get to be playful with Kelli. I've never worked with her before, but we're having a lot of fun together. I also enjoy the smokehouse scene with Jud. It's kind of a dark scene that you can really sink your teeth into, and Rob Hunt is great in the role."
As for the Oklahoma City audience, Demos is willing to bet what their favorite part of the show is going to be: "Whenever the song 'Oklahoma!' is played in this state, including during the musical, everyone stands, claps, and cheers. It's the state song, and they take great pride in it. It's like their national anthem."