In the NC Theatre Conservatory Masters Summer Theatre Arts School production of Oklahoma!, the cast of nearly 45 students ranges in age from rising 8th graders to recent high school graduates. Despite the differences in age and life experiences between some characters and the actors that portrayed them, Oklahoma! was a good pick by Conservatory Artistic Director Ray Walker and his team.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! marked a series of firsts for its time in 1943. It was the first collaboration of the now-renowned duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It was the first “integrated musical,” which integrated music, song, dance, and acting into a structured storyline with a meaningful plot. Up until this point, musicals had been mostly about showcasing talent, almost cabaret-style. Oklahoma! introduced the concept of a through-line from start to finish that incorporated all of the elements of the theatre. For this reason, we may be able to forgive some forced moments and sloppy storytelling, such as the demise of an ancillary character at the end of the show and the hastily applied “band aid” to make amends for his aggressor. But, if we don’t forgive the flawed storytelling for newness of the genre, we can certainly forgive it in exchange for the landmark musical numbers Rodgers and Hammerstein developed when they wrote Oklahoma! After all, only Rodgers and Hammerstein could paint a musical picture of a horse-drawn wagon and make the audience care about it.

The story of Oklahoma! follows the romance of one cowhand, Curly, and the lady of his affection, a farm girl named Laurey as they make their way in the soon-to-be state of Oklahoma. Musical numbers like “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” and the incorporation of ballet and tap routines would define a genre that we most commonly associate with golden age musical theatre.

The NC Theatre Conservatory program focuses on providing local youth with professional instruction in acting, dance, and voice. Their Master Summer Theatre Art School’s production of Oklahoma! is the culmination of a four-week summer intensive aimed at mounting a full scale musical production at a professional level. With a strong foundation of professionals on the production team, the youth of the Master STAS did just that.

Director and Choreographer Tito Hernandez, assisted by Joshua Keen of the ensemble, had his work cut out for him blocking the huge company, plus an additional children’s chorus of 17. The sheer number of people on stage created a bottleneck effect for several transitions, but the pace never seemed to drag. Set and lighting designer Joshua Reaves did well to keep the scene interesting with a well-detailed backdrop for Aunt Eller’s farmhouse, where the large majority of the show took place. Since the company doubled as set crew, the well-balanced combination of 2D and 3D scenic elements kept the scenery relevant and informative without bogging actors down with too many moving parts. Michael’s Santangelo’s music direction seemed effortless in the hands of the impressive orchestra, also youth, and company of talented vocalists.

First and foremost, the tone and expectation of professionalism was set from the onset by the exceptional orchestra, who handled the score with the professionalism of seasoned musicians. On stage, each actor conveyed a strong sense of character awareness – even if their bodies and voices hadn’t grown into them yet. Jack Russell Richardson commanded the stage and captivated the audience as Curly. His robust baritone was flawless. Carly Grissom was both graceful and coy as Laurey. She maintained an excellent balance of being both hard to get and enamored that seemed natural and easily believable. Her comfort in the classical soprano vocal range was well complimented by her foil, Cady van Venrooy as Ado Annie. Venrooy endeared herself immediately as the fickle Ado Annie and impressed the audience with her modernized belty take on numbers like “I Can’t Say No” and “All Er Nuthin’.” Also of note were the comedic characterizations of Ali Hakim and Andrew Carnes played by Michael Collier and Logan Harrison, respectively; as well as the strong and steady Aunt Eller, played by Margaret Hall. The ladies of the ensemble remained a force to be reckoned with in both number (about 75% of the ensemble) and attitude. Despite comprising a fraction of the total ensemble, the young men of the company – led by Joshua Keen – shone brightly in the dance numbers, which director/choreographer Tito Hernandez kept very close to Agnes De Mille’s original dance concepts. Joseph Gaitens as Will Parker stood out particularly in the “Kansas City” tap routine.

All in all, given the extensive talent of this extensive group, NCT President and CEO Elizabeth Doran captured the essence of the company best in her curtain speech: these are not just our future artists but the artists of the here and now.

Catch the final performances of Oklahoma! in the rest of the run through July 9th. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.