Fancy text for the Oklahoma performance in Aberdeen, WA

STORY & PHOTOS By Stephanie Morton

Catching a glimpse of the behind-scenes machinations of the Bishop Center for Performing Arts’ production of “Oklahoma!” is like seeing how the rabbit comes out the of the magician’s top hat.

The secrets that create stage magic are revealed. You’re seeing the lights and props and costumes that will somehow come together and transport us — the audience — to the Oklahoma Territory in 1906. You’re seeing ordinary people from the Grays Harbor community transform into ranchers and farmers and other territory folk.

Andrew Gaines, head of the theater department at Grays Harbor College, is the director of the show. Saebre Winn-Lark, who possesses an uncanny ability to be everywhere at once, is the assistant director and stage manager.

Between Gaines and Winn-Lark, this is not their first rodeo.

However, it is the first time that “Oklahoma!” will be presented at the Bishop Center.

Gaines said the previous music director infamously and vehemently opposed doing “Oklahoma!” It may be, said Winn-Lark, because the man was made to present it eight times at his previous gig.

But, now there are many good reasons to perform “Oklahoma!” said Gaines, including a personal artistic goal to learn the classics and to perhaps knock out criticism of his more esoteric choices with a big, splashy, well-known and well-loved show requiring a large cast.

“Let’s do the most famous musical in musical theater history!” said Gaines.

The 1943 Broadway production of “Oklahoma!” was a surprising smash hit. The first musical written by the legendary Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, it was based on a book entitled “Green Grow the Lilacs,” said Winn-Lark.

Some of the more famous songs include “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

“Oklahoma!” was groundbreaking and changed the face of American musical theater with music and song advancing the plot of the story in what is termed an integrated musical, said Winn-Lark. “’Showboat’ did it first, but ‘Oklahoma!’ was the commercial success.”

During an “Oklahoma!” rehearsal, director Andrew Gaines directs the cast.

Winn-Lark continuously updates the meticulously planned schedule, which has been created to maximize the actors’ time. Gaines watches the actors and provides notes. They confab. They adjust. They reconvene. They move on to the next item on the schedule.

The smallest of details are considered by this directorial dynamic duo. Cornstalks as tall as an elephant’s eye are crafted out of PVC pipe and masking tape.

They talk with a member of the ensemble who sports turquoise and purple hair. She will wear the red prairie dress, rather than the green one, as it’s too short, especially with a petticoat underneath. A scale model helps them plot out scenes.

Spoons, pots and pans and beer steins are prepped for the box social and shivaree scenes. Props are stacked and more stage pieces are built. Lighting and other effects are contemplated. The moon, stars and clouds are plotted out with the lighting designer. Fog is discussed.

The timing of the gunshots is mapped out. (Warning: there will be several firearm discharges during the performance!)

And there is rehearsal! Rehearsal for dialogue. Rehearsal for dance.
Rehearsal for song. The show will have six total performances. Is all this effort worth six performances?

“I conceive the whole thing as a big gift,” said Gaines. “Everyone is here building this gift. We’re all building this massive sandcastle. … No one builds a sandcastle and then protests that it’s only going to get washed away. It’s this human effort that’s ephemeral. And that’s what’s beautiful about it. We’re lovingly preparing this presentation for your pleasure.”

“It is a gift of love, absolutely,” concluded Gaines.

For choreographer Maija Nordin, the dream ballet sequence has been a dream come true. “I have been waiting for this. That was my favorite part of the movie. I was so confused by the plot, but it was such beautiful dancing that it didn’t really matter,” said Nordin. 

In the movie, the actors playing the lead roles were exchanged for dancers during the
ballet scene.


Choreographer Maija Nordin teaches the ensemble a dance number.

The ensemble practices a dance number during rehearsal.
Smoke lingers in the air after Aunt Eller (Kathe Rowe) fires off a round.

“What’s really cool about this production is that we are using actors, and they are just learning ballet. They are just going for it,” said Nordin. She emphasized that it is no easy task to learn ballet. “To see them learn that much technique in such a short period of time … it’s been really fun to work with everyone.”

When it comes to choreography, it’s not just learning the steps. Nordin must be aware of where each person stands, how they move in this particular scene, the direction they may move and if they will collide with someone else, the music, the cues and even how the sound of the dance steps may impact the orchestra or the actors singing. So many moving parts.

Dancing doesn’t come so easily to everyone in the cast. John Howley plays Ali Hakim, a traveling salesman of sorts. Howley said he is much more of an actor than a dancer with this production only his second performance in a musical. To prepare, he has been listening to the “Oklahoma!” soundtrack exclusively.

“My strategy to the dancing is to become really familiar with the music,” said Howley. “So, that’s my focus.”

Perhaps a little more comfortable with the dancing is Jake Conrad who plays cowhand Will Parker. At 21, he is a seasoned musical theater performer.
He can act. He can sing. He can dance. But can he rope?

Conrad knew at age 11 that he wanted to play Will Parker. The character stuck with him. Will was true to himself and his love for his girl never wavered. When auditions for “Oklahoma!” came around, he promised director Gaines that he would learn how to tap dance and he would learn how to rope. Gaines is making Conrad live up to his promises with three roping tricks.

“He wants me to do a flat loop, where it is parallel to the floor. Then, there’s a vertical loop, parallel to your body. If you get those big enough, then you can do something called a Texas Skip, where, if you time it right, you jump through the loop,” said Conrad. “That’s what he wants. We’ll see if it’s doable.”

Conrad said he has been learning roping from the “University of Google” and by watching YouTube videos. For tap lessons, he has been attending classes taught by fellow castmate, Aliss Barré.

The Bishop Center’s production of “Oklahoma!” promises to be an exciting, lively show and not just because of Conrad’s newly acquired skills. The long
hours, dedication and passion of the cast and crew will have you singing like “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’! Oh, what a beautiful day! I’ve got a beautiful feelin’. Everything’s going my waaaaaay!”