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'Oklahoma!' to open Peoria Players season on Friday

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"Oklahoma!", one of the most popular musicals ever written, will open Peoria Players' 2011-12 season at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the theatre at 4300 N. University St.

Directed by Bryan Blanks, it will be the first time the show – the first written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II – has been performed on a Peoria Players stage in the 93 years the theatre has existed.

Blanks is excited about putting it on that stage now. "I'm very passionate about this show and want everyone to be able to appreciate why I fell in love with this production many years ago," he said.

Aaron Elwell, front and center, who portrays Will Parker in the upcoming Peoria Players production of "Oklahoma!", tells Aunt Eller, portrayed by Sally Hodge, that "everythin's up to date in Kansas City" during a recent rehearsal. The show opens Friday and continues through Sept. 18.The story centers around the relationship between the cowboy Curly McLain and farm girl Laurey Williams, neither of whom wants to admit the attraction to the other until a darker presence brings them together. It includes such well-known show tunes as "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "People Will Say We're In Love," "Surrey With the Fringe On Top," and "Oklahoma!"

A cast of about 40 people, ranging in age from 8 to the 60s, have been working for several weeks to bring to life Blanks' vision of the show.

Jordan Lehman, a newcomer to Peoria Players' main stage, is portraying Curly while playing Laurey is Sarah Mayo, who was last seen as Ellen in Miss Saigon. She also has directed the music for several productions at Peoria Players and Community Children's Theatre.

Other cast members include Amanda Bishop as Ado Annie, the girl who can't say no, Aaron Elwell as Will Parker, Sally Hodge as Aunt Eller, Derek Childs as Jud Fry, Gretchen Wirtz Primeau as Gertie Cummins and Alex Larson as Ali Hakim.

"One thing I was up against when directing this show is people either love or hate 'Oklahoma!' A lot of people in the community have either seen the show multiple times or have been in a high school production themselves. Not to knock any local production of this musical, but since it is a classic it is often assumed everyone will love it, right? You just need a male and female lead that can sing pretty, a yellow house and a red barn, checkered square dancing dresses and chaps and our job is done. The problem is most productions are close to three3 hours long and if the script isn't well thought-out and the set design and staging aren't creative and eye-catching, 'Oklahoma!' can go from a classic to a snoozer," Blanks said.

That's why, he said, he made it his goal "to not dismiss the substance and characterization opportunities found in the script. There are some very serious themes in 'Oklahoma!', some more apparent than others. Themes such as suicide, sexual expression, sexual assault and feminism are all touched upon within this story. A musical written in the 1940s took a chance by creating characters that deal with issues and situations audiences could relate to. That for me is what is so beautiful about this story." Still, he noted, Rogers and Hammerstein didn't "beat you over the head with these messages" and added characters and story lines that audiences can laugh at "and forget some of the darker undertones in the script."

"Oklahoma!" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, 10, 14, 15, 16 and 17 and at 2 p.m. on Sept. 11 and 18.

Tickets for "Oklahoma!" are available at the Peoria Players box office, 688-4473, or online at They are $18 for adults and $12 for patrons 18 and under.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or at


About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).