BWW Interview: Oh, What a Beautiful Feeling: Stephen Mark Lukas and Taylor Quick in Ogunquit's OKLAHOMA
"There is something so simple, so wholesome about the story and the characters. When Curly made his entrance on opening night at the St. James Theatre in 1943 and sang 'Oh, what a beautiful morning,' the whole audience took a huge sigh of relief. There in the midst of war was a breath of optimism and that beautiful music."
And, indeed, when the speaker, actor Stephen Mark Lukas makes the same entrance seventy-five years later on the stage of the Ogunquit Playhouse in the company's new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic Oklahoma, the entire audience reacts in exactly same way. With a smile as expansive as the territory and a voice as luminous as the bright morning about which he sings, Lukas establishes immediate affection and rapport for the character of Curly, as does his co-star, the lovely, radiant Taylor Quick.
Lukas, who has played the role three prior times, and Quick, for whom this is a role debut, are headlining Ogunquit's beautifully crafted tribute, directed by Fred Hanson and choreographed by Ginger Thatcher (after Susan Stroman) to one of the milestones of American musical theatre. "It's the perfect story; it is so timeless," enthuses Quick. "It was one of the first book musicals to integrate song and dance fully into the story. It is based on Lynn Riggs' play Green Grow the Lilacs, and there are whole chunks of dialogue taken from the play. And then there is that groundbreaking dream ballet - a whole fifteen minutes that explores Laurey's struggle between two men. That is was the first musical Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together makes it even more special! Curly and Laurey are so relatable in the way they fall in love, and the supporting characters are amazing. Jud is a really complicated antagonist, yet you still feel for him."
Lukas talks about the challenge of bringing a period piece like Oklahoma to the stage in a fresh new production and addressing some of the issues often raised when some viewers subject the work to a modern lens. "We live in a time of cynicism, and with movements like 'Me Too,' we tend to look at revivals like My Fair Lady or Carousel and think that we might like them to be different today. But we have to give credit where credit is due. We have to look at the time in which the work was written, just as we do when we present Shakespeare or opera. I see Laurey as a strong willed young woman, and the Dream Ballet especially lets her express her psychological feelings. I think of Ado Annie as a feminist because she does what she wants, and she doesn't say 'no' because she is making her own decisions. Courtship in those days was very different then than now. Curly and Laurey have a kind of antagonistic, brother-sister relationship, but there is a lot of love beneath the surface."
So what are the issues in Oklahoma that require a modern audience to understand from a period perspective? Lukas continues: "There is the issue of the settlers taking Native American land which is never dealt with at all in Oklahoma. Instead, the musical focuses on the notion of building a community among the ranchers and farmers in the new territory. No musical written seventy-five years ago is going to be fully 'modern,' and I don't see any point in rewriting what was a masterpiece in its time. Instead, we have to create a production that speaks to the contemporary audience without changing a note of the score or a word of the script. And that is pretty much what we've done."
Indeed, the current Ogunquit production retains the painterly realism of the original, choreography that has its roots in Agnes De Mille, and a straightforward narrative style that preserves the essence of the classic. At the same time Lukas and Quick are infectiously appealing - young, complicated individuals struggling with feelings they cannot always express and yearning to create a life filled with purpose and love. Those feelings bubble to the surface throughout the play building to a passionate ending.
"The characters are who they are, but they are still approachable for a modern audience," Lukas opines. "These were people with big hearts who didn't wear those hearts on their sleeves, yet the poetry of the lyrics and the music conveys what they are feeling. We get to see that side of them when they sing, as in the moment when Curly turns away from Laurey and sings "People Will Say We're in Love" as a private declaration. The songs allow us to see another side of these people who had to be tough to survive in that landscape. In fact, in Rodgers and Hammerstein, the landscape, itself becomes a character in the story."
So how have Quick and Lukas prepared to play these iconic characters? Both say they began with Green Grow the Lilacs. Lukas says he also did a fair amount of research on cowboy life in the time. "I read books on the industry of ranching and how homesteading and the land rushes impacted that life. The cowboys used to roam the range for months at a time, and they did sing to the animals who were their only companions. At the time the musical takes place in 1906, the cowboy belonged to a dying profession, and you see that when Curly decides he will become a farmer because he has to find another way to make a living. I began with that premise. I also have done the role now four times, and each time I try to find something new. As a boy I had watched the Gordon McRae movie, but when I did my first Curly, I watched Hugh Jackman's phenomenal take on the role, and then I threw that all away and tried to build my own."
Quick has a similar story. After reading Lynn Riggs' play and watching the movie with Shirley Jones, she says she studied the production's current script closely for clues. "I noticed what little things had been trimmed or cut, and I especially remarked on the way the script was written in the Oklahoma dialect. I'm from Arkansas, so I understood it, but they also brought in a dialect coach to work with everyone. I understand Laurey; she is not too far from me, and I am thrilled to get to do the ballet in this production because sometimes they use an actress and a dancer."
Quick, whose aunt had been a dancer on Broadway, studied dance from the age of two, working with the Joffrey Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre, and these talents surely won her the role in the Oklahoma audition process. "The auditioning took a very long time," she recalls, "because they were looking to cast a Laurey and Curly who could do the ballet themselves. It was very neat to be able to do that, and we put a great deal of preparation into it. It is such a rich story being told there, that we wanted to get it perfectly."
Lukas, who gravitates to the "legitimate" Broadway repertoire like South Pacific, Camelot, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Guys and Dolls, comments on the vocal demands of the score. "Fortunately, the role sits right in my sweet spot. I think the key is to have a musical ear and a strong technique. Just as in classical music the difference between good Rodgers and Hammerstein singing and great Rodgers and Hammerstein singing is in the phrasing. This is something an opera singer always pays attention to, but a musical theatre performer doesn't necessarily. But in Rodgers and Hammerstein you have to make the path complete by observing where the commas and periods are. When I did the show directed by Holly Anne Ruggiero at Boston's Reagle Theatre, we were working from a script written in by Richard Rodgers, and she would say things like 'No, he changed that to a period years ago.'" Lukas notes though that "No matter how beautiful the music, it was written with intention first. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics, and then Rodgers composed the music after. That's how I like to approach it."
Quick adds her perspective. "I had a wonderful classical opera singer as a voice teacher growing up, and I studied in New York with Mike Ruckles. To sing this show you have to have a strong technique which is why Rodgers and Hammerstein always hired singers who could act well. Laurey gets up there, and both Stephen and I have to be careful to take care of ourselves and our voices in order to sing this."
But Taylor Quick hastens to add, "Every night feels like a dream come true. I have always wanted to play Laurey, to do Rodgers and Hammerstein; I have always wanted to perform the Dream Ballet, and to get to sing this with Stephen makes me happy every single night."
Stephen Mark Lukas returns the compliment to his co-star and then adds," To start every show with "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" is such a special experience! To feel the audience respond to the songs and the story- to find things they never thought they noticed before in a musical they thought they knew is exhilarating. This show is about community - about the challenges of making communities come together. It was written before cynicism became such a thing. In Oklahoma the audience can sit back and enjoy the beautiful music and the feeling of a simpler time."
Photos courtesy Ogunquit Playhouse, Gary Ng, photographer
Oklahoma plays at the Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main ST., Ogunquit, ME from June 13 - July 7, 2018 www.ogunquitplayhouse.org 207-646-5511