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'Oklahoma' comes sweeping down a Georgetown plain
By Carrie Humphreys
After months of planning, auditions, set building, costume sewing, rehearsals and preparation, the Swamp Fox Players production of "Oklahoma" debuts Friday night.
Considered one of the most important Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, "Oklahoma" was the first Broadway show to fully integrate song, character, plot and dance, and it became a model for all future Broadway shows when it debuted in 1943.
The production is the perfect choice for the Swamp Fox Players' season opener, said co-directors Jan Fort and Stacy Rabon. The duo have slowly and painstakingly taken the cast of 24 from auditions five months ago to Friday's curtain.
Over the past 20 years, Fort, with a degree in music education, and Rabon, a professional actor, have "done it all" with the Swamp Fox Players. "Oklahoma" is the first time they've teamed as directors, however. Rabon focused on the drama. Fort concentrated on the musical numbers, and plays Aunt Eller.
The biggest challenge in preparing a musical of this size was the scheduling of participants.
"It's a big play with lots of people. It's quite a task with all the logistics," Rabon said.
Illness dogged the performers; job commitments and sports practices also kept the volunteers from attending rehearsals.
"It's been a long process," Fort said.
The costumes were a major challenge.
"Try finding eight pairs of chaps, or size 13 shoes from that era," said Tracy Crane, who helped with costumes. Crane visited Goodwill, the Salvation Army, thrift shops, and Wal-Mart seeking items such as vests and suspenders and fancy undergarments.
Although a few of the duds were borrowed, many had to be found or sewn by the show's costumer, Pookie Oates, and committee. Finding suitable fabric was a chore.
"We've got seven days to go and we're not done yet," Crane said last week. "We're living on the edge."
The set was first conceived in October, Fort said, and finishing touches were added just last week. The sets needed to be built big enough to accommodate all the actors, she said.
"We have them all over the set – in the doorways, hanging off the windmill or against the fence. Quite an undertaking for our set crew to build a windmill, and I was adamant that we have a real split rail fence made out of wood."
Jo Camlin, one of the founders of the Swamp Fox Players, said the size of "Oklahoma" is a monumental task. Over the years, there have been few more demanding productions.
"No other directors could have pulled this off," Camlin said. "Jan is so musically inclined and Stacy knows the theater inside and out. There were so many layers to this production, with so many cast members. They've spent hours and hours developing each of the characters and putting it all together.”
"Oklahoma" is the story of Laurey, a headstrong farm girl who doesn't want to fall willingly into the arms of the handsome cowboy, Curly. In her attempts to avoid him, she ends up turning to the dark-hearted farm hand, Jud Fry, who wants to do more than take her to the dance.
Songs include favorites like "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With Fringe On Top," "Kansas City," "I Cain't Say No" and many more.
Each of the seven leads got a CD of the soundtrack in December. The whole cast gathered a month later. From that point, each component of the show – from the dance numbers choreographed by Christie Karavan and Rachel Wildes to the drama and the musical numbers – was rehearsed separately. The task of selecting and readying the musicians for the live orchestra and rehearsing the musical numbers fell to Kathy Newton, a pianist with a master's in piano performance who said she's taught several of the cast members in past years.
In fact, many of the cast knew one another before "Oklahoma." Some are even related.
Fort cast her brother, Richard Powers, as Jud, and her niece, Ansley Powers, 9, is making her stage debut. Another father/daughter duo is Kevin and Ashley Plexico. Stephanie Crane, a professional actor who plays Laurey, is a past student of Fort's and the daughter of costumer Tracy Crane.
"Probably 90 percent of the cast knew each other from the past," said Blake Wilson, who plays Curly. "A lot of us took music and drama classes together when we were younger. I started taking musical theater classes at the Music Studio from Miss Jan when I was 6 or 7."
Wilson, 24, grew up in Georgetown and once thought he would become a professional performer. Instead, he went off to college, married and returned to the area as a horticulturist for Brookgreen Gardens. After not performing with the Swamp Fox Players for seven years, he's thrilled to be back on stage. His favorite "Oklahoma" tune is "Pore Jud Is Daid" which, as you will see, he does with aplomb.
"This cast is like one big family reunion, like one big unit all working to get the thing done," Wilson said. "And done well. We all lean on one another."
The cast also includes: Camlin, Will Ness, Joe Ford, Pat Nooft, Karen English, Marcy Carl, P.J. Brachan, Tiffani Sisk, Mitch Thompkin, Laura Walters, Al Saunders, Jeff Siegrist, Austin Bell, Cheley Elliott, Stephen Stewart, Jim Siegrist and Haydn Haring.
"Oklahoma" will be at the Strand Theater on Front Street in Georgetown on Friday and Saturday, March 3-5, 10-12 and 18-19 at 8 p.m. and March 6 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $18. Call 527-2924 for information.