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The upcoming NETworks Presentations, LLC production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! — presented Nov. 30-Dec. 5 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium by Broadway Series South — is a fresh, new, darker version of this 1943 landmark musical set in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma Territory on the eve of statehood. This National Tour is based on the recent Royal National Theatre/Cameron Mackintosh Broadway revival, says Durham, NC native and North Carolina Theatre veteran Abbie Brady, who plays the insufferable mantrap Gertie Cummings in the show.
The tour also stars Jeremiah James as cocky, stubborn, lovelorn cowboy Curly McLain; Julie Burdick as his temperamental, headstrong sweetheart Laurey Williams; Pat Sibley as Laurey’s crusty old Aunt Eller Murphy; Andrew Lebon as Aunt Eller’s surly, reclusive, sinister, French postcard-collecting ranch hand Jud Fry; Daniel Robinson as spendthrift cowboy Will Parker; Carrie Love as Will’s man-crazy girlfriend Ado Annie Carnes (“I Cain’t Say No”); and Sorab Wadia as the amorous itinerant Persian peddler Ali Hakim.
The inaugural production of Oklahoma! — directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by the then-unknown Agnes de Mille — made its Broadway debut on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre. It closed on May 29, 1948 after 2,212 performances and 4.5 million tickets sold.
The dramatic context for Oklahoma! is the fierce clash between Western farmers and ranchers over the farmers’ propensity to fence in the heretofore Open Range. This magnificent musical adaptation of Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, was the very first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. It was a landmark musical that featured marvelous music by Rodgers and a brilliant book and frisky lyrics by Hammerstein. Oklahoma! transformed American musical theater by using its songs to propel the action, rather than as mere musical interludes that interrupt the dramatic flow.
In 1944, Oklahoma! received a special Pulitzer Prize. In 1953, the Oklahoma legislature chose “Oklahoma” as the official state song. In 1955, there was an Academy Award®-winning motion-picture version of Oklahoma! — directed by Fred Zinnemann — that starred Gordon MacRae as Curly, Shirley Jones Laurey, Rod Steiger as Jud.
In 1976, the musical was inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame. In 1993, the show received a Special Tony Award® to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Then, on March 31, 1993 — exactly 50 years after the musical’s snowy opening night — the U.S. Postal Service honored Oklahoma! as the first Broadway musical to be commemorated on a postage stamp.
According to the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization, “To date, more than 600 productions of Oklahoma! are licensed every year in the U.S.A. and Canada alone; in the 50th Anniversary season of 1993 a record 900 productions were performed.”
The most recent Broadway revival of the show, directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Susan Stroman, opened on March 21, 2002 and closed on Feb. 23, 2003 after 388 performances. It was nominated for seven 2002 Tony Awards®, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Choreography, but only actor Shuler Hensley, who played Jud Fry, won a 2002 Tony — for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
The current National Tour of Oklahoma! — directed by Fred Hanson and choreographed by Ginger Thatcher, who recreates Susan Stroman’s choreography from the Broadway revival — will feature set and costume design by Anthony Ward, lighting design by David Hersey (adapted by Ted Mather), and sound design by Brian Ronan. (Ward and Hersey both worked on the Broadway revival.)
Abbie Brady says, “One of [Trevor Nunn’s] visions was to make Laurey darker. He made Laurey a brunette, because that makes her a darker character physically, and he emphasizes the relationship between Laurey and Jud.
"Jud as a character, in general, is darker,” says Brady. “Andrew Lebon, who plays Jud, does a great job of bringing out Jud’s insecurities, as well as his hopes and wishes.... Jud is alone and dark and keeps to himself. He’s extremely socially inept. He’s just an outcast in society, and Lebon does a really good job of bringing that out.
There are other major changes. Brady notes, “In the big ballet [‘Out of My Dreams’], there are many surprises due to choreography.” For example, in the inaugural 1943 Theatre Guild production of Oklahoma! different actors from the actors who played Curly, Laurey, and Jud played a Dream Curly, a Dream Laurey, and a Dream Jud in the “Out of My Dreams” sequence. In the Broadway revival, Brady says, the actors who play Curly, Laurey, and Jud dance the dream ballet.
Brady adds, “Jud keeps reappearing [in the dream ballet].… There’s also a death scene in the ballet and a processional and everything.
Moreover, Brady says, “There is [an earlier] comedic scene that’s also rather dark.... It’s the scene where they sing the song ‘Poor Jud Is Daid.’ While we play the scene comedically,” Brady says, “the topic of the conversation is killing Jud or having him commit suicide.”
No stranger to the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage, Abbie Brady played Judy Turner in the North Carolina Theatre production of A Chorus Line (2000) and Teresita in the Raleigh-based professional theater’s presentation of West Side Story (2001). She also danced in Funny Girl (2002) for NCT and was a member of the ensemble in the theater’s 2003 production of Mame, starring Loretta Swit of “M*A*S*H” fame.
Brady grew up in Durham and attended middle school and high school at the Durham School of the Arts. She is a former Teen Miss Dance of North Carolina, and was voted Miss Congeniality in the 2000 Teen Miss North Carolina pageant. Brady, who has also appeared on “Star Search” and performed with Jeff Foxworthy and Judy Collins, is a May 2004 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"After graduating in May,” Abbie Brady says, “I moved to New York City the first week of June.… I auditioned for Oklahoma! in July and was hired and started rehearsals in August.” She joined the National Tour in September.
Brady lists playing Gertie Cummings in the current National Tour of Oklahoma! as one of two career highlights to date. “Playing Gertie is fun,” she says, “and so is being able to do the original Susan Stroman choreography” from the 2002 Broadway revival.
She says her other career highlight so far was “working with [director/choreographer] Mitzi Hamilton when I did A Chorus Line [for North Carolina Theatre], because she actually worked with [director/choreographer] Michael Bennett [on the original 1975 Broadway production] and the character of Val was based on her.”
The Oklahoma! Press Kit describes Gertie Cummings is a “shrieking flirt.” When the show premiered in 1943, Gertie was one of the original blonde bubbleheads. A loud, high-pitched laugh — instantly identifiable even when she’s offstage — was Gertie’s trademark.
"I will be the first ever brunette Gertie,” claims Abbie Brady. “I’m also in the [dream] ballet, and I have a featured dance part in ‘The Farmer and the Cowman [Should Be Friends].’”
In analyzing the character of Gertie, Brady applies insights gained while earning her undergraduate psychology degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Brady claims, “Everyone knows someone like Gertie. She’s a little bit obnoxious. She’s a caricature of herself. I don’t think she realizes how obnoxious she is.”
How did Brady summon up that awful ear-piercing laugh? “When I did the reading for the part,” Brady recalls with a chuckle, “I did the most obnoxious, loudest, high-squealing laugh that I could muster up, and that became Gertie’s signature laugh….
"Curly and Laurey both refer to Gertie’s laugh with disdain,” says Brady. "There’s a wonderful scene at the end when Gertie comes on. She laughs offstage, and everybody knows, Here comes Gertie!”
When asked to describe the show’s plot from Gertie’s perspective, Abbie Brady quips, “The show is about how Laurey tries to be the victim and get Curly’s attention by being mean to him. But, really, Curly has his sights set on Gertie; he just doesn’t know it yet. All the cowboys in town have their sights set on Gertie.”
On a more serious note, Brady adds, “This play is about finding who you love and marrying him, especially if they have a lot of money, like Ali Hakim …. The farmers don’t know what they are in for, trying to mess with the cowboys.”
Abbie Brady also says she is thoroughly enjoying life on the road with Oklahoma! In Memphis, she says, she got to tour Graceland and Beale Street. In Orlando, she visited Disney World. In Tampa, she toured Busch Gardens.
Brady is especially looking forward to the tour’s Broadway Series South engagement, because family and friends — even her parents’ Sunday school class — will have the opportunity to see her perform.
"I also can’t wait to go to Honey’s in Durham,” says Abbie Brady, “and to eat some Chick-fil-A and drink some sweet tea.”
Broadway Series South presents Oklahoma! Tuesday-Friday, Nov. 30-Dec. 3, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $29-$64. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates (for groups of 20 or more): 919/857-4565 or http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/group.html [inactive 5/05]. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/2004-2005/broadway.html#oklahoma [inactive 5/05]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=6697. Internet Movie Database (1955 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048445/. The Broadway Revival Site: http://www.oklahoma-themusical.com/ [inactive 11/05]. The Tour Site: http://www.oklahomaontour.com/ [inactive 8/05]. Rogers and Hammerstein Organization: http://www.rnhtheatricals.com/show.php?show_id=30.