O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A spells old-fashioned, knee-slappin' fun as the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center presents the first musical collaboration by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein.
The enormously popular play, an institution of musical theater, kicks up its heels tonight and runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 23 at the performing arts center, 324 Pine St.
Even though the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! opened in 1943, director Rick Hite, an English teacher at Pinellas Park Middle School, said its patriotic, slice-of-American-pie message is still relevant today.
"The musical portrays the economic challenges of the time and conflicts between the farmers and cowmen," he said. "But they had determination and hope for a beautiful new life in a new state. Today, we still have hope that the future is going to be better for America."
Hite, who is returning to directing community theater for the first time in about 15 years, said he used a stylistic approach to present the musical, set in Oklahoma territory in 1906.
It's quite different from most high school portrayals or the 1955 movie starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae, he said.
"Many times, you'll see everyone dressed in fancy clothes and bright colors," he said. "Oklahoma was a dust bowl, and the characters wouldn't have access to that kind of expensive clothing. I wanted it to reflect the hard lives these people really had."
With that in mind, he chose earthy, muted colors for the set and costumes. Instead of a perky white farmhouse, his version looks weather-beaten and worn.
Farm gal Laurey Williams, played by Amy Ludkiewicz, wears overalls in many scenes.
"She's modern, independent," he said. "More sassy than sappy."
Kathleen Monahan, director of cultural and civic services for Tarpon Springs, predicted the musical would be a hit, especially during tough times.
"Right now the economic picture looks bleak," she said, "but we chose this because we wanted something to make people feel happy."