When Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic cowboy opera “Oklahoma!” opens at Phi Beta Kappa Hall this weekend, it will represent more than just two months of hard work. For some it will be a first experience on the college stage, and for some it will be one of their last. For director and William & Mary theatre professor Richard Palmer, “Oklahoma!” means a chance to branch out and do something unexpected.
dramatic works and period comedies it’s fun to do a great big musical.” Palmer
remarked about his choice to take the helm on “Oklahoma!” The musical will run
Nov. 12-21 at William & Mary’s Phi Beta Kappa Hall.
Palmer said the project has been on his to-do list for eight or nine years. It took a lot of work to get the people and the resources together, but once he got department approval, Palmer and his production staff jumped right in.
After some initial production meetings and staff assembly, the next step was auditions. According to Palmer, almost 80 people came out for the show with an incredibly diverse spread of ages and performance backgrounds among them. Dancers, singers, and actors descended on Phi Beta Kappa Hall in waves over the three day audition and call-back process, among them Rebecca Turner ’14, who was auditioning for a William & Mary musical for the first time.
“I tend to think, as actors generally do, the worst,” the freshman remarked after she had completed the first round of auditions.
Turner had attended Palmer’s previous directorial outing, Moliere’s “The School for Wives” in the spring, and had been preparing with a voice teacher for her audition since early summer. They had picked relevant songs, and had tried to figure out what the director and designers would be after in terms of an overall look for the show, but then according to her “all of those decisions changed in a week and I decided to bring in entirely new stuff.”
Conversely, Andrew Collie ’11 had adopted a slightly different strategy in order to prepare for his last musical audition as an undergrad.
“The audition process is very different for me from what it used to be,” he remarked. “It used to be I would read the play, research one part really intensely, go after it with everything I had, and then be really disappointed if I didn’t get it. Now I think the audition process is about having fun, developing an audition that I feel confident about, and then just seeing what happens.”
Both Turner and Collie were called back and
eventually cast in the show. Turner is a member of the ensemble and Collie is
the free-wheeling free-spirited Will Parker, who announces his return from an
eye-opening journey to Missouri in the famous number “Kansas City.”
Palmer said he was very impressed by the quality of the auditions, and also by the “strong sense of theatricality” he saw in every member of the cast.
“We’re looking for a certain sense of panache, an ability to play the space, play the audience, and enjoy the music,” he said.
The cast met with Palmer and his staff for the first time on Sept. 19, and have been rehearsing diligently ever since for their big opening next weekend. Megan Asano ’14 who plays leading love interest Laurey Williams, said that the freedom Palmer gave her in terms of developing her own character really helped her in the rehearsal process.
“Something really important with musicals like “Oklahoma!” is that since they’re old fashioned and tend to have stock characters, it’s tempting to assume that those characters are shallow,” she said. “I’ve learned that it’s equally if not more important to dig deep into these characters and develop them as much as you can. That’s what gives something like “Oklahoma!” its life. When you put that vibrancy into the characters and find out what makes them tick, it gives the play its own vibrancy, it makes it come alive.”
As for Palmer, he said he’s very pleased by the opportunity to do something out of the norm. He sees this “folk drama” as he calls it, as a way to break out of a certain expected role as a director.
“And if you want to do a big format musical,” he added, “what better choice do you have than 'Oklahoma!'?”