A production of Oklahoma! that opens tomorrow seems destined to be the Merely Players' best musical ever, and it could be one of the top offerings yet at the 18-month-old Main Theater at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts.
"I'm in my ninth year here, and have been part of every show since the third one. This is going to be our best show yet," said Evan Brierley, the show's producer and Merely Players president, as he handed out programs at Monday's dress rehearsal.
His wife, Helen, board member and costume designer for this production, added, "Evan just finished building the set's house and porch, putting it on stage only about a half-hour ago. He's also just finished designing and putting these programs together."
Pausing several times during rehearsal to applaud her performers, director Eloise Ullman was unrestrained in her enthusiasm for the cast and for the Chesapeake Center's facility.
"This show is the joyful sum of all our best parts," Ullman said. She reflected on how the play's appeal crossed generations, down to the young performers in the cast.
That Oklahoma! is alive and growing is illustrated by the current Broadway version, in which the original Agnes de Mille choreography is supplanted by new dances choreographed by Susan Stroman of Contact and The Producers fame. While honoring de Mille's choreography, Merely Players' production will reveal several new twists supplied by local choreographer Vicki Smith, sister of the late Bobbi Smith - who Vicki acknowledges taught her everything she knows.
Dance captains Lesley Rausch and Jeffrey Hitaffer help to polish the dance ensemble to a smooth execution of Smith's choreography.
This first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration is crammed with great tunes, including "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." Merely Players' music director Anita O'Connor has imparted a zestiness to these familiar tunes that was most apparent in the full ensemble's rehearsing of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."
After Monday's rehearsal, O'Connor said, "This is the first time I've worked with Merely Players, and they're a great group from the top on down. I've really enjoyed working again with Eloise Ullman and with such talented young people. I expect to find lots of great female voices, and I did, but I was amazed to find so many excellent male voices. All of these young people worked really hard and learned surprisingly fast."
Talent abounds, as illustrated by song-and-dance man Joe Rose, in the role of Curly, and Jeff Hitaffer, singing the role of Will Parker.
Two newcomers do justice to the rich score. Kerry Deitrick, as Laurey, delivers a fine "Many a New Day" and Samantha Peller's Ado Annie sounds the right note in "I Can't Say No."
The rehearsal showed that this is a lively show. Opening tomorrow and playing weekends through May 26, with 8 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. performances on Sundays, the show has seats for $8 for Chesapeake Center members and $12 for nonmembers. Tickets may be ordered by calling 410-636-6597.