By Michelle Trauring
Lead actor Jack Vicari perched on the edge of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center stage, eying the theater’s two entrance ramps every few seconds.
Rehearsal should have begun 10 minutes ago. A handful of the 18-year-old’s young comrades hummed the catchy theme of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”—which they will stage on Saturday, January 31, and Sunday, February 1—while milling about backstage.
“My character is cowboy Curly McLain. He’s a happy guy,” Jack explained in a pseudo-southern accent, killing some time. “He’s nice and he’s got a good heart …”
He stopped mid-sentence when he caught sight of a blonde head bobbing toward him—belonging to his co-star, 17-year-old Christiana Moyle, who portrays a beautiful farm girl, Laurey Williams.
As she approached the stage, Jack said in a pointedly louder, almost teasing, voice, “And he really likes her, like, a whole lot. He just has an odd way of showing how much he likes her. He seems kind of show-offish, but it’s all for her, really.”
Christiana shook her head at Jack, laughing, and hopped up the stairs. Before she had a chance to respond, a loud clap turned her around to face the empty theater seats.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” director Joseph Minutello said, half-jogging down the stage-left ramp, trying not to spill his coffee. “Get your body warmed up and ready to go.”
The idle chatter dissipated. With just 15 days before opening night, it was time to work.
Moments into practice, it is clear that Mr. Minutello runs a tight ship. He has to. This is the debut musical of the Nancy & Frederick DeMatteis Arts Education Program. And Mr. Minutello wants to set the bar high.
“It’s nice to be in on the ground floor of something like this and watching it grow,” Mr. Minutello said, raising his voice over the cast rehearsing “The Farmer and the Cowman.” “They are learning. Anybody can memorize words, but to make those words real and truthful and honest, it changes these kids. It gives them something that they’ve never felt before.”
The song ended to applause and a few words of encouragement from Julienne Penza, managing director of arts education.
“That was great, but energy, guys! Energy has to come up, like 130 percent,” she said. “Even if you think you’re overdoing it, try overdoing it. I’d rather have to tell you to take it down a notch. It’s musical theater, for crying out loud!”
The first collaboration from composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, “Oklahoma!” marked the beginning of the American musical as it is known today, according to Ms. Penza. She grew up on the Academy Award-winning 1955 film adaptation—starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones—as has 12-year-old ballerina Paige Garrett, who dances as Laurey in a dream sequence, and 14-year-old Ella Baldwin, who portrays Ado Annie.
“My mom actually lived in Oklahoma for a short time, so she really connected with it and wanted me to watch it,” Ella said. “She was like, ‘It’s so true.’ I loved it.”
After auditions for the Westhampton Beach production, both Jack and Christiana said they watched a recorded version of the circa-1998 London revival that starred Hugh Jackman as Curly.
But more than a month into rehearsal, Sam Terry—who portrays Jud Fry, a lovelorn villain caught in a triangle between Curly and Laurey—still hasn’t watched any professional version of the production. So far, it’s working out just fine, he said. The 14-year-old believes he is his character. And that’s all that really matters.
“It’s a lot different than anything else I’ve ever played. But I understand where he’s coming from.” Sam said of Jud during a break. “I feel like, yeah, they all are the bad guys. They’re wrong and I’m right. I’m having fun with it. I’ve never in my life, ever, flipped out on someone. I’m not a mean person. And it’s exciting to scream in somebody’s face. It’s like, ‘I don’t do that.’ It’s so cool. It’s a huge leap.”
But the biggest departure of all is when he gets into a fist fight with Jack on the cowboy’s wedding night.
“Here’s my present to you,” Sam says, winding up to punch.
Except the “knap”—the sound that signifies contact—came before the swing. But Jack still reacted and leaned back.
“I knocked him out with my mind,” Sam laughed. Mr. Minutello couldn’t help but crack a smile before hopping up on stage to coach the two on stage combat.
The director eventually hopped down and, while they practiced, he said, “The music is definitely the reason this musical has stood the test of time—when you walk out of this show, I don’t care who does it, you’re humming the tunes—but it’s also the storyline. It’s about young love.”
The lead actors are, admittedly, still working on their chemistry, they said. But in the coming weeks, they’re positive they’ll nail it.
At practice, it’s still a little awkward—especially after singing “People Will Say We’re In Love (Reprise).”
“This is where you kiss!” Mr. Minutello urged.
“Now?!” Jack and Christina asked, their eyebrows raised.
They looked at each other, smiled nervously and kissed. Quickly.
Abruptly, they pulled apart and stood shoulder to shoulder, staring straight ahead. After a deafening silence, the theater broke into laughter.
“This is a kid’s show,” Jack said,
“Oh, get on with it then,” the director said, playfully rolling his eyes, and commanded, “Again.”
“Oklahoma!” will be staged by students in the Nancy & Frederick DeMatteis Arts Education Program on Friday, January 31, and Saturday, February 1, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.