Everything is new in Oklahoma — the wind, the plain, the wavin’ wheat.
And so is the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to a cast of 36 with an age range of 7 to 17.
For in a world where young actors aspire to appear in “Wicked” or “Rent” or even “Legally Blonde the Musical,” the idea of a romantic musical based on the formation of the state of Oklahoma is foreign to them.
“Most of the kids here had never seen ‘Oklahoma!’ before they auditioned for it,” Jack Lampert says. “So, this is a new musical for them.”
Lampert is Theatre Baton Rouge’s educational director and director of the theater’s Young Actors Program production of “Oklahoma!,” which opens Thursday, March 19, in the Studio Theatre.
Lampert auditioned some 100 elementary through high schoolers for this show, marking the largest turnout for the Young Actors Program. “Oklahoma!” is the second full-length musical staged by the program, the first being the spring 2014 production of “Once Upon a Mattress.”
“We were performing junior musicals before that,” Lampert says. “But we’ve grown past that, and I am so proud of how this cast has approached this production so professionally. They’ve given it their all, and they’re having fun with it.”
The chorus from the title song wafted from the stage into the green room, where Lampert was taking a break to talk about the show. The young voices were enthusiastic and eager for an audience.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II based their musical on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs.” “Oklahoma!” opened on March 31, 1943, in Broadway’s St. James Theatre.
The time is 1906, the year before the United States declared the Oklahoma territory a state. And blossoming within a rivalry between cowboys and farmers is a romance between Curly McLain and Laurey Williams.
Curly is a cowboy who isn’t afraid to go after the things he wants. He falls for a farm girl named Laurey, and he wants to win her heart. But he soon discovers that wanting and getting are two different things.
“He likes to win,” Cole Roland says. “He doesn’t like the idea of not getting what he wants.”
Roland plays Curly opposite Coleen Leslie as Laurey. The roles mark a reunion for this duo in romantic leads — they played Harold Hill and Marion “The Librarian” Paroo in the Young Actors Program’s 2012 production of “The Music Man Jr.”
Roland was only 12 years old then, so it was understandable when he expressed nervousness about having to kiss the then-13-year-old Leslie on stage.
A couple of years make a big difference. The 15-year-old Baton Rouge Magnet High School sophomore is finding himself more comfortable acting out scenes with his 16-year-old co-star.
“They have to do a lot of hugging and some kissing,” Lampert says, laughing. “But they’re dealing with it better this time.”
“It’s not as strange, because we’re older and we know each other,” Leslie says.
She’s a junior at the LSU Laboratory School. This is her fourth Young Actors Program production and Roland’s third.
“I like ‘Oklahoma!’ because it changes moods from act one to act two,” Leslie says. “Act one starts off kind of eerie, and you get to see the dark side of some characters in act two. In act two, there’s an uncomfortable scene between Lesley and Jud, and it’s liberating, because I get to unleash so many emotions.”
Matt Miyagi plays Jud. Rounding out the principal characters are Vivian Brown as Aunt Eller, Jacob Johnson as Andrew and Mitchel Boyle as Will.
Working with Lampert are Beth Bordelon as musical director; Leea Reese Russell, choreographer; Erin Woolworth, stage manager; and Darla Shaler, youth stage manager.
“This musical is a great opportunity for the kids,” Lampert says. “In the middle of the ‘Wickeds’ and the ‘Rents’ they get to perform the show that set the standards and established the rules of musical theater.”
And when this youthful cast takes the stage, the old story becomes new.