Music By Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Campbell Smith
Choreographed by Amy Wright
Musical direction by Andrew Petrasiunas
Performed by students of the High School Project
Grand Theatre, London
April 5 to 17, 2005
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
(Disclaimer:  The writer’s son is part of the ensemble.)

Cowboys and farmers dance across Oklahoma!

Two area students have stolen the stage in the Grand Theatre’s production Oklahoma! Strathroy’s Thandi Tolmay as Aunt Eller and Ilderton’s Michael Tompkins as Ali Hakim both display excellent acting talent and a flare for comedy. The two have handled their accents well (Thandi with her southern drawl and Michael as a gypsy peddler) and provide many of the laughs in the popular Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical.

They are among a cast of 43 students in this year’s High School Project at the Grand Theatre. Each year, the Grand auditions 200 London and area students, selecting a cast for a big Broadway-style musical production. A professional director, musical director, choreographer and crew bring forth the best in the students’ talents. This year the Grand continues its tradition of creating a show worthy of its professional stage, with a cast of very talented young people.

Oklahoma! is the story of the clash between the farmers and the cowboys in the 1800’s. The residents believe that their lives will improve when the territory becomes a state. The plot includes Laurie and Curly’s love story, furthered by a complicated dream scene when Laurie dozes off after sniffing smelling salts. Laurie is also being stalked by the social misfit Jud Fry.

Don’t expect to see a copy of the old Oklahoma! movie with Shirley Jones, or even the newer version DVD with Hugh Jackman. This production has been updated by director Campbell Smith. You may remember Smith as the director of the Grand’s 2002 Wizard of Oz – a very interesting show with Caribbean touches. If this were “Director’s Idol”, the judges would say that he took an old favourite and “made it his own” – and in doing so, improved it with fast action and more interesting characters.

Jocelyn Howard stars as Laurie, with her beautiful soprano voice and perfect renditions of “Many a New Day” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”. Oriol Madrenas plays Curly, the handsome cowboy who woos Laurie. He opens the show with “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”, and the audience immediately knows they are in for a musical treat. Doug Price’s amazing dancing as Will Parker and Merritt Crews’ comedic expressions as Ado Annie are both excellent, as is Justin Goodhand’s portrayal of the frightening and pathetic Jud Fry.

Director Smith added some new characters – The Geronimo Gang, a bunch of kids who tear on and off the stage. Strathroy’s Matt Grootjen stands out as Zack, with his mischievous and entertaining facial expressions..

Choreographer Amy Wright (who is well-known her for her work in TV commercials) has made good use of the cast’s talents. Thomas Alderson of Strathroy is a cowboy/dancer who shows amazing footwork in oversized cowboy boots. The show-stopping number “The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends” is pure fun with fantastic choreography.

Musical director Andrew Petrasiunas has blended together the young voices to create a rousing chorus of the ever-popular title song “Oklahoma!” in eight-part harmony.

Hats off (cowboy hats, straw hats, lady-like hats with flowers, baby bonnets, and lacy duster caps) to Bonnie Deakin and her team of student volunteers for the excellent costumes. Each cast member has two and sometimes three costumes, and occasionally the script demands a very fast change that entails a completely different look. Most impressive is the use of a wide variety colours and fabrics, while keeping the costumes true to the time period in the regular scenes. But the imagination really shows during the dream sequence with dramatic changes to eye-catching reds, purples and silvers.

The set designed by Joanne Thompson and built by a team of student helpers is also excellent, including an actual working windmill.

Overall, a great show – excellent direction of a talented cast! And while one might think this writer could be biased, since her son is a cast member, she feels she’s given an objective account here. If you don’t believe her, come see the show for yourself.

Oklahoma! continues at the Grand Theatre until April 17. Tickets ($30 & $15) are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.


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