Acting troupe travels to ‘Oklahoma’

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published August 12, 2015


CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Paul Messano has always been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Oklahoma.”

So when the Heart of the Hills Players — of which he is a member — selected it as its next production, the Troy resident couldn’t don a cowboy hat fast enough.

“I love the movie. I absolutely love the music. When the opportunity came, I just wanted to do it,” said Messano, cast as lead character Curly McLain. “I love the story.”

Messano, 77, and the rest of the acting troupe have been rehearsing for weeks and are ready to bring “Oklahoma” to the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts Aug. 20-23. Showtimes are 2 p.m. Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21-22 and 3 p.m. Aug. 23. Messano’s wife, Pam Messano, 69, is serving as director and choreographer.

The Heart of the Hills Players consists of talented performers from 21 communities who are ages 50 and older. Most of the members are retired from every kind of career. For “Oklahoma,” some cast members had to dig deep into their inner teenage years to develop their characters. 

Set in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s, “Oklahoma” tells the story of cowboy McLain and his courtship with farm girl Laurey Williams, portrayed by Troy resident Joanie Rizzio. However, the hired farmhand Jud Fry — a role perfected by 59-year-old Shelby Township resident Paul Venditti — tries to come between them.

Audience members also will get tangled up in the unpredictable relationship of characters Will Parker and Ado Annie, who likes to flirt. Bill Baird, 67, of Sterling Heights, plays Will Parker while Barbara Sementkowski, 71, of Rochester, portrays Ado Annie. Diana Schreiber plays the role of Aunt Eller, one of the lead characters.

Authentic renditions of  “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” also will set the tone.

The group rehearses at the Disabled American Veterans Hall in Shelby Township. And no matter how much he has practiced, Messano still gets butterflies on opening night.

At the age of 56, Rizzio is the youngest member of the acting company. She is playing the role that Shirley Jones made famous in the movie version.

“This character is one I have never played before. I get to play a very young teenager. I get to cry. I get to fall in love with the leading man, Curly,” Rizzio said. “I get to become a person I normally am not in everyday life.”

Rizzio has been singing since age 5.

“You get what’s called ‘the acting bug.’ It never leaves you,” she said.

Being on stage is always rewarding for the actress.

“People want to get away from their cares and worries for a couple hours,” she said. “People come to our shows. They get entertained. They leave happy. That’s my reward: seeing you have a good time.”

Joe Tocco, 89, has the honor of being the most senior member of the Heart of the Hills Players. The Shelby Township resident began with the group when he was 75 and, since that time, has been in most of the troupe’s productions.

“I just want to keep busy,” said Tocco, who plays the character of Andrew Carnes. “I wanted to have something to do. I was retired for eight years before finding my niche. I love to perform. I love to sing more than anything else.”

“Joe knew his lines before anyone else in the cast did, and that’s important for this show,” Rizzio said.

His wife of more than 60 years, Barbara, also was part of the troupe, not as a performer but as an usher. She passed away in March of this year, and Tocco will dedicate this performance in her memory.

“I felt that it was the thing to do,” he said.

Tickets for the show cost $15 in advance and $18 at the door. The Macomb Center for the Performing Arts is located at 44575 Garfield Road in Clinton Township. Tickets can be purchased by calling (586) 286-2222 or at