Here’s a trivia question for all you quiz kids: How many Tony Awards did Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” win when it first hit the Broadway stage?
Would you believe none?
It might have been different had “Oklahoma!” made its Broadway bow four years later, though. No doubt if Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical together hit the stage in 1947 instead of 1943, it would have cleaned up with a surrey full of trophies.
But the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Broadway Theatre did not exist in 1943, when “Oklahoma!” began its record-breaking five-year run on the Great White Way, a commercial and critical smash that was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1955. In 1993, 50 years after the musical debuted, it did get a special Tony Award.
This year, 75 years after it set a new bar for musical theater, it retains a special place in the hearts of audiences and performers alike. It is especially meaningful for Mary Cichcock, who is directing the Appleseed Community Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” that opens July 20 at the La Crescent High School Fine Arts Center.
“The show is a pretty special one to me. It was the first lead role I ever had as an actress,” Cichock said of the production eight years ago in Pecatonica, Ill., in which she played Laurey, the role that launched the movie career of Shirley Jones.
Not only did she land a plum role in that show, she also got to act opposite her father, who played Jud, a surly farmhand and unsuccessful suitor to Laurey. And she met her boyfriend.
The Appleseed Community Theatre production also is special because it marks the directing debut for the veteran actress, who grew up in Rockford, Ill., and studied theater education at Viterbo University.
Cichock, who works as patron services manager for the La Crosse Community Theater, played Mrs. Gloop in last year’s Appleseed Community Theatre production of “Willy Wonka,” also serving as dance captain. After that experience, she made it clear if there was ever an Appleseed production that needed a director, she was in. That the first chance she got was a show she adored was just icing on the cake.
“It’s definitely timeless,” Cichock said of “Oklahoma!” “I think it’s really and truly about the American dream. That’s the root of the show itself. It’s about being someplace and making something of yourself.”
In the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, that someplace is the territory that was about to become the state of Oklahoma, a frontier where ranchers and farmers clashed and townsfolk marveled at how up to date everything was in Kansas City.
In this place, young Laurey is being wooed by cowboy Curly and farmhand Jud, and while she deep down prefers Curly, she agrees to go to the box social dance with Jud because Curly has just waited too long to make his move. Meanwhile, another cowboy named Will is trying to win the hand (and heart) of Ado Annie, a girl who “cain’t say no” and has another man pursuing her, Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler.
The soundtrack for this double romantic triangle includes some of the most enduring songs ever written for the Broadway stage, including the title song as well as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
“The music is very uplifting, but it’s also very simplistic in that most people know the melodies when they come in,” Cichock said. “It’s familiar even if you haven’t been a big fan.”
The leading roles of Laurey and Curly are played by Katelyn Klieve and Kyle Sonnemann. In casting those parts, Cichock said she was looking for great voices and actors who carried themselves well, but she also wanted chemistry. When she saw Klieve and Sonnemann dance together during auditions, she knew she had her leads.
Cichock added that she’s been delighted with the full cast of 22. “They have been outstanding,” she said. “I could not have asked for a better cast.”