Thursday, April 30, 2009

O What a Beautiful Morning

Lots of whooping and hollering and energy bounced off the walls of the rehearsal space in UC Davis' Hickey Gym Tuesday evening.

The source was a music/dance rehearsal for the upcoming production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!,' which opens Saturday at the Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall. Boots stomped, cowboy hats flew, petticoats swirled and cowboys performed backflips in the air.

'I'm actually a gymnast, so that's why I'm doing the backflips,' explained Mark Curtis Ferrando, one of the two airborne dancers.

While the men danced, the women, in a sea of white petticoats, sat on the floor with books or laptops, waiting for their turn. Emma Goldin - playing Laurie in this production - limbered up on the practice barre; Brett Duggan, a dark and brooding Jud Fry, sat in a corner and looked dark and brooding.

Earlier in the evening, I had met with director Mindy Cooper. Lots of whooping, hollering and energy bounced off the walls there, as well, as her 5-year-old twins chased each other around the interview room.

'They've grown up backstage,' Cooper explained, saying that their first experience with theater was at 6 months of age, when she choreographed the Broadway production of 'Dracula,' and the babies came to all the rehearsals.

'It's divine to introduce kids to theater.'

In a way, she's following in the footsteps of her own mother, who directed a high school musical while Cooper played in the prop box.

Cooper, the UCD theater and dance department's current Granada artist-in-residence, got involved with musical theater through the back door.

'I came up as a performer through the ballet world, and not through summer stock. I really came up as a dancer, and I got my Equity card to join a Broadway show, which isn't how you usually do things.'

The Baltimore-born Cooper attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, quitting at 18 to join a dance company.

'I joined the Kansas City Ballet and then decided I didn't want to be a big fish in a little pond, and so I moved to New York.'

She danced for some well-known dance companies in the Big Apple, and was dancing with Twyla Tharp when that legend disabled her company.

'I thought, what do I want to do now?' Cooper recalled.

'What bubbled up, from that time in my life, was I remembered that when I was 16, I couldn't wait to get my driver's license. I wanted to get into the car, roll up the windows and sing every show tune that I knew.

'I thought, 'I've done a lot of comedic and dramatic roles in the ballet world, and maybe I need to sort of take it to the next step and use words.' I was really lucky and had a lot of good breaks, and learned a lot in a very short time, about doing more than dancing on stage.'

Her first Broadway show, 'Song and Dance,' was the perfect segue. In the first act, Bernadette Peters sang; in the second act, the dancers danced, and sang one song at the finale.

Cooper discovered that she loved working in musical theater, but she wanted more than the hurried Broadway rehearsal schedule. She began assisting other choreographers, in order to be more involved with the creative process.

'Then, one day, I realized I no longer was a very good assistant, because I was having my own ideas. So I started choreographing, and I still was performing, and then choreographing led to directing.'

Cooper came to Davis to direct 'Urinetown' in 2007, and enjoyed the experience.

'I had an incredible time working a situation that isn't 'time is money.' In New York, everything is 'chop chop,' and there isn't a lot of play time.'

She also enjoyed the collaborative process of the university setting.

'To me, theater is the most wonderful, ultimate collaboration, and I had a really good time here. For 'Urinetown,' a lot of my collaborators were professors, but I also worked with student designers.'

Because the experience was such a success, she was invited back to direct 'Oklahoma!' ... but was it the right show for her?

Thanks to Cooper's unusual background, she never had done a Rodgers & Hammerstein play, but - coincidentally - she had just directed a Bay Area show called 'Musical of Musicals, the Musical,' for which she won several awards.

'I did a lot of research on a lot of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, and I fell madly in love with them in the process. I sat and read 'Oklahoma!'

'I know that we need more hope in the world, and it really spoke to me on that level.'


The admiration between Cooper and her cast is mutual.

'I love my cast,' she said. 'We decided to open auditions to the community, knowing a lot is asked for this show; the talent pool needed to be wide. I did not want to have singers sing and then dancers dance, which was what you did when the show was created in the 1940s: The singing chorus sang, then they brought in the dancers.

'I also wanted to have our leads do their own dancing in the dream ballet. I knew that I wanted a lot of great performers: triple threats. We shook the trees: I think it's very well cast.

'My husband makes fun of me, saying 'You fell in love with your cast,' but you have to. You fall in love with every cast.'

Goldin, a UCD senior in religious studies, minoring in music, admitted that 'Oklahoma!' has been her favorite since she was a little girl. She was part of the cast of 'Urinetown' and is happy to work with Cooper again.

'The best thing about working with Mindy is that she doesn't treat us like students; she treats us like adults, like any other production, because she wants it to be good.'

The cast all liked their assignment to create back-stories for their characters.

'We sat down early in the process,' Cooper said, 'and I gave them all names. Knowing that there is some shyness at the beginning of a rehearsal, I set up duets and trios, and then they wrote their back-stories. It gives me a grid to build on: There are a lot of incredible, beautiful, intricate stories.

'These are brainy kids, and they did their homework.'

David Green decided that his character is Benjamin Franklin Bartlett Jr.

'I took the name because I had a great, great grandfather who was named Benjamin Franklin Moore, and so I figured it would be a fun way to use his name.'

Green explained his character's back-story: After the man's first wife died, he moved out west and remarried in Oklahoma Territory.

'My name was mentioned in the script: that's how famous I was. Apparently, there was a Bartlett farm that burned down somewhere, and that actually was my uncle. His barn burned down after they discovered oil on the land, suspiciously enough. So I just take care of the farm.

'My parents are both dead, so I take care of the farm, and I'm madly in love with Miss Helen. She doesn't return my affections, but I'm confident that I can win her over with persistence.'

Mark Ferrando's wide-eyed enthusiasm is ideal for his own character's back-story.

'My character's name is Fred Kelly; he's a cowboy from Kansas. He's the youngest cowboy. He's about 17, and so he's exploring Oklahoma because he thinks he can stake land there ... but he didn't pay attention in school, so he didn't know that the land stake happened long before he arrived.

'He's ignorant, but he's young and all ready to go.'


'This play is all about hope,' Cooper said, 'and I'm delighted to have a lot of hope in my life.'

Hope has been very important to her, particularly this year. She was diagnosed with cancer while directing a show at the Lesher Center, in Walnut Creek. She went through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy here in California, while her husband and friends commuted from New York to support her.

Her last radiation treatment took place two weeks before rehearsals for 'Oklahoma!' began. Knowing that the show was coming up helped her get through the difficult parts of her treatment.

'It was great for me to do pre-production when I didn't feel good, to give myself something to focus on,' she said. 'I love my work. I've always been very blessed to do what I love for a living. It was really great to know I had something to get out of bed for. By nature, I'm a hopeful optimist, and I don't necessarily look with rose-colored glasses, but it has been incredibly uplifting to work on this piece in my life.

'And isn't that great how art and nature collide?

'The life lessons in this piece are so beautiful. Aunt Eller has two moments that will knock your socks off. The message of the piece speaks very loudly to me. There are no accidents: Things come into our lives at the right time, and I believe this show came into my life now for this reason.

'And to just work with these incredibly wonderful students ... it's fresh and honest; there's not a lot of game playing. It's been incredibly refreshing, in a lot of ways.

'I'm a lucky girl.'


I left Hickey Gym and stopped for dinner at a nearby restaurant. When I emerged, the sun had turned the sky pink. While walking up A Street to my car, from somewhere in the background I heard a male voice singing, 'Oklahoma ... where wind comes sweeping down the plain...'

Seconds later, I was passed by two guys on bikes - wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats - singing the song at top volume, as they pedaled up the street.

This, I thought at that moment, will be a great show.

No comments: