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September 13, 2012

Is Grosse Pointe Theatre reviving “Oklahoma!”? Yes ‘surrey!’

Popular American musical opens 65th anniversary season

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
Erin Ginger stars as Laurey Williams and Steve Xander Carson as Curly in Grosse Pointe Theatre’s production of “Oklahoma!” The show runs Sept. 16-30.

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Grosse Pointe Theatre is considered a second family to many of its volunteers, so it’s only fitting that GPT will open its 65th anniversary season with the family-friendly musical “Oklahoma!,” whose cast and crew includes several actual relatives.

Director, head choreographer and unofficial rope-trick instructor Don Bischoff of Macomb Township is just one example. When “Oklahoma!” opens at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial Sept. 16, his son, Kyle, will be playing a cowboy opposite scenic backdrops painted by his wife, Tracy.

The first musical by the famed writing duo of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, “Oklahoma!” revolutionized the musical when it opened on Broadway in 1943, and won a special Pulitzer Prize the following year for its creators. A story about two young couples who fall in love on an Oklahoma ranch, the show features such songs as “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’.”

A live fiddler and banjo player will accompany the orchestra, which will be led by Music Director Stan Harr of Grosse Pointe Shores. In her first musical since high school, Harr’s wife, Laura Bartell, plays matriarch Aunt Eller, and their 17-year-old son, Jeremy Harr, plays cowboy Will Parker, who’s engaged to Ado Annie Carnes. The elder Harr said this is his son’s 20th GPT show, but it’s the first time both parents have performed with one of their children. Stan Harr said his son’s first GPT performance was “Bells Are Ringing” when he was 6; the boy declared it was “the best day of my life” after he found a quarter onstage and realized they were using real popcorn as a prop, his dad recalled with a grin.

The detail-oriented Stan Harr is working hard to get the Western flavor of the songs right — using “yer” instead of “your,” for example.

“Generally, the music’s fairly traditional, with a bit of extra color with the addition of the banjo,” he said.

“Oklahoma!” is one of those classic shows that doesn’t need to be updated, said Bischoff.

“It’s a part of Americana. … It’s a timeless musical,” he said.

Erin Ginger of Grosse Pointe Woods plays the strong-willed heroine Laurey Williams, who’s running her Aunt Eller’s farm when she finds herself the object of two men’s ardent affections: cowboy Curley, played by Steve Xander Carson of Grosse Pointe Woods, and creepy farmhand Jud Fry, played by Brian Groth of St. Clair Shores. Ginger doesn’t have any family members in the show, but there will be plenty in the audience: She said relatives are coming to all of the performances, and her mother, a huge “Oklahoma!” fan, will be there for almost every production.

“She’s just as excited (as I am),” Ginger said of her mother, who last saw her daughter in “Oklahoma!” when Ginger was in a Grosse Pointe North High School version 10 years ago. “She’s living vicariously through me. She’ll be singing along to every song.”

Kate Connolly of Grosse Pointe Woods saw Ginger in that production, when Connolly was a fifth-grader. Now a Wayne State University theater major, Connolly said she has wanted to be in “Oklahoma!” since then. She plays Ado Annie, a character the actress loves for her energy and playfulness.

Eddie Tujaka of Grosse Pointe Farms — a lieutenant in the Grosse Pointe City Public Safety Department — is enjoying an activity much different from his day job. Tujaka plays Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father.

“I love the theater,” Tujaka said. “I love Grosse Pointe Theatre. You meet new people. (It’s) tons of fun.”

Also having fun is Groth as the disturbing Jud Fry.

“I love it,” said Groth, whose wife, Eleonore Ellero-Groth and 8-year-old daughter, Lilly, are in the chorus. “It’s hopefully very out of character for me.”

Groth built a wagon for a high school production of “Oklahoma!” that GPT has modified for this show’s surrey, complete with actual wagon wheels acquired from that very 21st century source: eBay. A sloped stage will give the audience a better view of the dancers, and audiences can expect to be wowed by Tracy Bischoff’s beautiful backdrops, as well as set pieces that include Jud’s shack, an oil rig and a windmill.

At 1 p.m. Sept. 16, GPT will host a red carpet reception featuring local dignitaries and an opportunity for people to greet the cast. GPT last staged “Oklahoma!” in 1965.

“Oklahoma!” marked a significant period in Bischoff family history. Don Bischoff said he and his wife played Will Parker and Dream Laurey, respectively, in a 1994 production at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, and the day the show opened was the same one the couple bought their first house. While he was rehearsing rope tricks for the show on the Macomb Center stage, Bischoff said a man who had been standing in a corner approached him and shook his hand, saying, “You did a pretty good job, son.” The man introduced himself to Bischoff as Johnny Cash; he was scheduled to play a concert there that evening.

Bischoff met his wife a few years before then, when both were dance partners in a production of “The Music Man” at the Macomb Center. Bringing things full circle, Bischoff directed GPT’s version of “The Music Man” last fall.

The War Memorial is located at 32 Lake Shore. Performances of “Oklahoma!” are at 2 p.m. Sept. 16, 8 p.m. Sept. 20-22, 2 p.m. Sept. 23, 8 p.m. Sept. 27-29 and 2 p.m. Sept. 30. Tickets are $24. For tickets or more information, call (313) 881-4004 or visit www.gpt.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.