LIBERTY — One of the oldest musicals to open on Broadway will take center stage and help christen the new performing arts theater space at Liberty High School this Thursday through Saturday.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” first took the Broadway stage in 1943. Now, 78 years later, the fine arts students at Liberty High School and their new Performing Arts Center.Teachers Katherine Gehrlein and Mick Turpin have laid out a 1906 farm on the stage. There are 33 cast members, 27 in the crew and 43 musicians in the pit orchestra area.

“It’s really awe-inspiring,” Gehrlein said. “It’s the first full musical in this space. The students are ready to do a live performance again. They have brought in so much energy to rehearsals. What I love to do is see them take that and flourish. It’s been fun to discover this new space together.”

Musical historians recognize “Oklahoma!” as the first modern musical and the birth of the American musical.

“The students and I have talked about how this was a first-of-its-kind production,” Gehrlein said. “America has contributed to the theater world with the musical.”

Gehrlein said the students have also worked on character development rather than creating stereotypes.One of the main characters, Curly McLain, a cowboy, is played by senior Patrick Sheeley.

“I’ve never played a lead,” he said. “I’m usually the comedic sidekick. There’s a lot of responsibility and lines to playing a lead. I have learned to embrace Curly’s confidence and swagger. He’s a very joyous man.”

Sheeley kicks off the musical with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and then goes into “The Surry with the Fringe on the Top.” However, his favorite songs are his duets with junior Madeline Belcher, who plays Laurey Williams (“People Will Say We’re in Love”), and senior Jonah Lively, who plays Jud (“Pore Jud in Daid”).

Lively said his Jud is that sinister presence in the background.

“I have been really thinking about how bad is he really,” he said. “I feel like society has made him what he is, but for a time, he does exist in a gray area. He’s more ambiguous.”

Lively said this is his first time to play a villain and to experience that anger and disgust.

His two favorite songs are his duet with Sheeley, which he appreciates for the harmony, and “Lonely Room.”

“It’s a song that he uses to describe himself with a mix of loneliness and that sinister take,” he said.

The object of both men’s eye is Belcher’s Laurey Williams.

“I have to give her some spice,” she said. “I do like the role. She’s not just an ingénue, but a young woman who is trying to find her way in the world.”

For her, “People Will Say We’re in Love” is a song that has chemistry, but is also laced with stubbornness as she and Curly wonder which person will give in first to their feelings.

“We are ready to offer some live theater and aim to make a good impression,” Belcher said. “We are all making this show our own.”

And wrangling everyone is student director Rand Brown, a senior. He has been on stage and behind the curtain, but this role has given him a new perspective.

“I have helped with blocking, scene changes and even working with Curly and Jud with some of their scenes. It’s about 50% directing and 50% counseling. They are willing to bounce ideas off me. It’s been a lot of work, but so much fun,” he said.

Southeast Editor Kellie Houx can be reached at kellie.houx@mycouriertribune.com or 389-6630.

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