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Director Looks For Right Tone For Goodspeed's 'Oklahoma!'

In East Haddam, the wind goes sweeping down the Connecticut River rather than the plain. But Jenn Thompson is feeling right at home, bringing Rodgers and Hammerstein's game-changing 1943 musical "Oklahoma!" to the Goodspeed Opera House.

"Oklahoma!" runs through Sept. 23 at the theater.

It was just a few miles from the Goodspeed, at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex, that Thompson first transitioned from being an actress to a director. With her parents Evan Thompson and Joan Shepard and her brother Owen, she ran the River Rep summer stock company at the playhouse between 1987 and 2005.

Last year Connecticut got reacquainted with Jenn Thompson when she directed "The Call" for TheaterWorks, then helmed "Bye Bye Birdie" for the Goodspeed.

"Oklahoma!" has its own Connecticut connection, of course. The musical had a historic pre-Broadway try-out at the Shubert in New Haven when it was still titled "Away We Go!"

Not only is Jenn Thompson on familiar turf in Connecticut, she's among friends. Rhett Guter, whom she cast as Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie," was her first choice to play the lead role of Curly in "Oklahoma!" This is the third time Thompson and Guter have worked together; they met when Guter played Peter in a production of "Peter and the Starcatcher" that Thompson did in Utah.

Thompson and Guter discussed "Oklahoma!" during a lunch break at the Goodspeed's Scherer Library earlier this month.

Minutes before that chat, in a rehearsal studio across the street from the library, choreographer Katie Spelman had been leading the "Oklahoma!" cast through an elaborate ensemble dance number, scored to the melody of one of the show's many hit songs: "People Will Say We're in Love." Guter, an accomplished dancer, tried out a dance move requesting that Spelman "tell me how it looks."

"It doesn't have to be a jump," the choreographer replied. To which Guter responded with a grand, exaggerated comic romp that would have better suited his previous Goodspeed role of rock star Conrad Birdie. Everyone in the room laughed. "That's a no," Spelman said, smiling.

Finding the right tone for "Oklahoma!" is crucial, Thompson and Guter agree.

Thompson took a trip to Oklahoma to get a feel for the show. "I try to do things like that when I can. It helps me design a show in my head, it helps me see it. In the case of 'Oklahoma!," the show is so specific. Towns are named."

For Guter, who appeared in the ensemble for a production of "Oklahoma!" just after graduating from college years ago, preparing to ride and rope as Curly McLain meant "working on the music a lot. This is the biggest thing I've ever done in my career. I wanted to have the music part down. Curly goes all over the place. There's this romantic comedic edge. He gets the girl, then doesn't know what to do next. We've all been there."

Thompson says, "I wanted the cast to be young. These are people just growing up — young, untested, scared. That sort of immaturity, if you're on the other side of 30, is harder to excuse. They should seem young. Even where they're living is new on a certain level — Oklahoma wasn't even a state yet."

Thompson chose Guter for "Bye Bye Birdie" last year, she says, because "I really wanted a Birdie who could dance."

So is Curly a dance role too?

"It is now," Thompson purrs. One of the hallmarks of "Oklahoma!" has always been the "dream ballet" devised by the legendary choreographer Agnes de Mille. That ballet is one of several aspects of "Oklahoma!" that has had a lasting influence on the development of musical theater in the mid-20th century.

"I liked the idea of nearly everybody in the cast being able to dance in the dream ballet," Thompson says. Curly's romantic interest Laurey in the show — played by Samantha Bruce — is represented by a different performer in the dance, but Guter and others live the dream.

"In preparing for this show in my brain," Thompson says, "I started with the ballet." As an actress, I'd never been in a show that had a ballet. I felt I couldn't tackle 'Oklahoma!' unless I knew what that was about." She didn't find it intimidating, though. "The dance is the part where you find the most license to be creative."

"We're taking advantage of the intimacy" of the Goodspeed stage, Thompson says. "Here, opportunities crop up for a different form of storytelling, a different look."

While Thompson says the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates have been "very generous in letting me shift stuff around," making minor changes in the show's text and score, this "Oklahoma!" isn't a radical departure from how this cornfed romantic drama is generally known.

She and many members of the show's cast and creative team have read "Green Grow the Lilacs," the play "Oklahoma!" is based on, for guidance, and even with the dream ballet Thompson says "we are following the map of Ms. de Mille. Just with a 2017 reach." The question she kept asking herself during rehearsals was "How does this play in the moment?"

Guter chimes in: "One of the things we're most proud about is that the bones of the show are all there. This is still Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!' The lead characters are so complicated. It's a fun challenge. 'Oklahoma!' has this tradition of being the first to have a lot of the narrative told through dance. These roles where I can employ my physicality, that's what excites me."

"OKLAHOMA!" is at the Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam, through Sept. 23. Performances are Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., with added Sunday evening performances at 6:30 p.m. through Aug. 13 and 2 p.m. Thursday matinees beginning Aug. 17. 860-873-8668, goodspeed.org.

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