‘Oklahoma’ in Vermillion

The most popular of all the Broadway musicals the legendary team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ever concocted, "Oklahoma!" comes to the local stage next week when Vermillion Community Theatre presents its 2010 summertime show.

 "This is truly a classic work of the American musical theatre," said director Nanette Hofer. "There are timeless, memorable tunes; a script worthy of a 2006 Broadway revival, and great homespun, hearty, Midwestern characters we all know and love!"

"Oklahoma!" will open Friday night, July 9, with the first of four performances at 7:30 p.m. at the Vermillion High School Performing Arts Center. Subsequent shows will be at the same curtain time Saturday and Monday sandwiched around a Sunday 2:30 p.m. matinee.

Hofer, who was interim assistant professor of musical theatre at USD in 2009-2010 and who has directed "Chicago," "Peter Pan" and "A Chorus Line" (as musical director/conductor) for the university's theatre department, had her directorial baptism for VCT with "Music Man" in 2008.

"I have been very excited to see growth in the cast members," Hofer observed. "We have accomplished leading and supportive players, but a classically written musical is only as strong as its ensemble members.  They have been really delightful to work with. I sense a 'growing up' of the VCT members since 'Music Man.'"

If customers at First Bank & Trust where Mecia Graham works have recently found her singing to herself at her desk or reciting lines to no one in particular, they have to understand her situation. Graham, a Custer native who has appeared in numerous musicals there and in Vermillion, plays the lead female role of Laurey.

"I think one of the best parts of musical theatre is how it takes over your being and all the little things you say and do," Graham said.  "You can't help but walk around and suddenly find yourself humming one of the tunes or be carrying on a conversation with someone and suddenly say, 'Isn't that jist the purtiest thing y' ev'r did see!' I catch myself also listening to others talk about things and my brain automatically thinks of a line from the play."

Graham said she loves the wide range of emotion her role entails.  "I like the challenge as an actress to find her innocence, playfulness, vulnerability, love and all that comes in between," she said. "She is one of those characters who, when you see her, you can't help but be drawn into her world."

Graham's counterpart in the leading male role of Curly, Kevin Earlywine, couldn't have imagined himself in South Dakota as recently as five years ago. As a veteran fine arts performer at Auburn High School in Rockford, IL, he achieved the role of Marius in "Les Miserables," the Illinois High School Theatre Festival All-State musical. He auditioned for 40 colleges, and USD was one of those which called back.  "They made me feel welcome and like I wasn't just a number, so I came here," he said.

Earlywine, who has two semesters left toward his musical theatre degree, said he and his character are both very driven individuals.  "Curly is faced with many obstacles over the course of the play, and he faces them head on," Earlywine said.  "And I really love the music in the show. I feel honored to get to sing such wonderful music although I think my friends are sick of hearing me sing ''People Will Say We're in Love' constantly!"

It is coincidental but ironic, too, that David Hulac, a professor of psychology at USD, is playing the brooding, misunderstood hired hand, Jud Fry.

"Playing anger is fairly simple," Hulac said, "but what is difficult is displaying the depth of his character — the isolation, desperation, loneliness, despair and brief period of joy Jud feels."

Hulac, whose favorite all-time role was that of Jesus in "Godspell," said playing Jud Fry as a melodramatic bad guy would be an insult to the character, the authors and the audience.  "This role stretches my intellect, my emotions and my body," he added, "and I am grateful for the opportunity VCT and my family have afforded me."

Hulac's six-year-old daughter is joining him onstage, and he finds it a thrill to see the stage through her eyes and remember his own early memories of being backstage.

"I love working with this director (Hofer)," Hulac said.  "She successfully accomplishes the difficult task of reconciling both her creative and very demanding nature with complete respect for the actors."

If there is any cast member who feels perfectly at home on the VHS stage it should be Philip Munkvold, who has performed in countless school and community shows there. A double major in vocal music education and vocal performance at USD, Munkvold plays Persian peddler Ali Hakim.

"It is great being part of such a well-known, classic show," Munkvold said.  "And I love meeting all of the new cast members and being with actors I've worked with previously."

Rebecca Barczak, a senior musical theatre major at USD, is Ado Annie, and playgoers will note a non-South Dakota accent in her voice.  She went to high school in southern Indiana and has appeared in numerous musicals there and at USD.

"Ado Annie is a ball of energy," Barczak said. "I love the songs she sings and the interesting, fun triangle between her, Ali and Will. I can relate to her because she is a free spirit with a lot of spunk."

The other man in the triangle, lovesick cowboy Will Parker, is played by O'Gorman graduate Stuart Daniel, who will be attending USD this fall as a musical theatre major.  "I really enjoy the music he gets to sing and just overall what he gets to be like onstage."

Daniel said the daily commute to rehearsals from Sioux Falls hasn't been all that bad, considering he spends his travel time listening to musicals.

Veteran VCT actress Erin Conlon, whose day job is tour manager for Children's Theatre Company of South Dakota, rules the onstage ranch as Aunt Eller. She recalls stage experiences were limited for children when she was growing up in Vermillion. "I remember how special I felt the few times I did get to be onstage," she said, "so I always want to share that feeling with the kids we get to work with in VCT today. I really believe that, when every member of the cast feels that the show wouldn't be the same without them, that feeling of teamwork and community comes across to the audience."

Evelyn Schlenker, who teaches at the USD medical school, shares that opinion.  "The more a cast works together and sees the final goal, the more they interact, get to know each other and talk," she said.  "They also begin to rely on each other for being there for each scene. For me the best part is that people come from all walks of life and all ages and build a unique 'family.'"

The cast of more than 80 members who range in age from 6-year-olds to people in their 70s has been working on "Oklahoma!" since the first of June.

"The reason I love Vermillion Community Theatre," said Lynn Lawrensen, "is the incredible feeling of family, of working toward one goal, that we as cast and crew develop over the summer.  I have many wonderful friendships that have come about from my time with VCT."

Lawrensen credits Hofer's talent for seeing the big picture and yet every tiny detail.  "It is fascinating to watch it all come together," she said.  "I love coming to the theater each night because we are painting a picture for the audience."

When it comes to family, the Wards are literally the best example — Steve and Carol Ward and sons Sam and Charlie are all in the show! The parents have been in shows together in the past, and after last summer's "In Every Generation," their sons wanted to try out for this year's production.

Steve admits modestly that he likes to sing but only loudly in a big group "so no one can hear me," but he also has key lines in the role of Ike Skidmore.  Carol appreciates the fact that people have been performing shows like "Oklahoma!" for decades.

"We see each other perform magnificently, and we see each other make mistakes and improve over time," she said.  "This is what brings a family together, and it is what brings a theatre troupe together."

A 15-piece orchestra, which in itself reflects the community/university aspect of the VCT ensemble, will accompany the play under the direction of Anthony Burbach. Nick Amundson is stage manager, Kathryn Reimler is choreographer, and Brian Adams is technical director. Susan Heggestad has the task of costuming the huge cast. The show even has its own combat choreographer, Kyle Wasserman.

Tickets at $12 for adults and $6 for K-12 are on sale at HyVee, Davis Pharmacy and Nook 'N' Cranny.  "Will call" tickets can be reserved at Nook 'N' Cranny at 624-4611. All seats are general admission, and doors will open a half-hour before curtain time, but buying tickets in advance enables purchasers to avoid the long lines at the box office on show nights.

Perhaps Munkvold said it best:  "A summer without a VCT production would not truly be summer."

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