How the west was sung

Pennwood Middle School wraps up rehearsals for spring musical ‘Oklahoma!’

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Down on the farm: Pennwood Middle School wrapped up rehearsals for its spring musical, Oklahoma!, which hits the stage March 9 and 10. SAMANTHA BAMBINO / TIMES PHOTO

At Pennwood Middle School, stereotypes are shattered every day. Football coaches double as theater directors and team captains fearlessly break out in song and dance before their peers. Talk about a real-life High School Musical.

Over the past few weeks, more than 100 rising stars from various grades and student groups have joined forces to put the finishing touches on Pennwood’s highly-anticipated spring musical production of Oklahoma!, which hits the stage March 9–10.

During a final dress rehearsal earlier this month, it was already clear this show will be one for the books. Things ran like a well-oiled machine thanks to director Brian Davis, who exuded an infectiously positive energy the entire afternoon. As he rapidly called out character names and dance numbers, students got in perfect formation, never missing a beat.

For the kids, donning the frilly dresses, cowboy hats and faux handlebar mustaches of 1906 Claremore is somewhat of a foreign experience. But for Davis, who directed Oklahoma! at Pennwood in 2006, it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.

The beloved Tony Award-winning musical comedy by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein is celebrating its 75th anniversary so, according to Davis, there was no better time to bring it back to the Pennwood stage.

In the midst of land boundary rivalries between farmers and ranchers, Oklahoma! tells the tale of farm girl Miss Laurey Williams, who struggles with saying “yes” to either of her eligible suitors — handsome and confident Curly McLain, and shy, misunderstood Jud Fry. At the same time, her friend Ado Annie Carnes seems to have trouble saying “no” to anyone, including cowboy Will Parker and savvy traveling peddler Ali Hakim.

To witness the students of Pennwood make each of these dynamic characters their own, one would never know the majority aren’t full-time theater kids — not even the leads. Eighth-grader Ryan Torres, who shines as Curly McLain, just wrapped up a successful season as captain of the football team. Unlike High School Musical’s trapped and troubled Troy Bolton, played by Zac Efron, who must choose between basketball and theater, Torres does both, finding common ground between his two passions.

“Teams support each other in both,” he said. “We work together to make everything happen.”

Last year, Torres got a major taste of the spotlight when he starred as Conrad Birdie in Pennwood’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. Compared to Conrad’s egotistical, ladies man persona, Torres is excited for the change of pace that comes with playing the more reserved role of Curly, who has to fight for the affection of Miss Laurey Williams.

As Torres perfects his lines and dance routines in these final days of rehearsal, he’ll be drawing inspiration from two key influences. First and foremost is his mother, who starred in her fair share of musicals as a teen. Second is Davis, who also happens to be his football coach.

A 1992 graduate of Pennsbury High School, Davis is a longtime physical education teacher and coach who, like Torres, found a way to unite his two passions of sports and theater. With his dynamic presence and personality, it was only natural for many of his players to become his protégés. According to Davis, most team practices begin with a high-energy, choreographed dance routine, which he said the young athletes always get into.

“I recruit some of these boys who would never think of being in a musical,” Davis explained.

Auditions for Oklahoma! were held the Monday after football season ended, with more than 100 students and volunteers putting their names forth to have a part in the production.

“A show can easily be good,” Davis said. “But a show can be great with parent volunteers.”

So far, he has yet to be disappointed with those making magic happen behind-the-scenes. Despite busy schedules and full-time jobs, parents have put in countless hours to create lavish, custom-built stage sets and costumes, which are sure to blast audiences to a farmland of the past.

“This cast and crew put their heart and soul into creating this moment in time. The costumes, the sets and the determination to get into character has really come together to deliver an exciting show,” Davis said. “Each year, our musical takes a new direction, and our students continue to amaze me with their commitment to excellence. You won’t want to miss this one.”

Pennwood’s production of Oklahoma! will feature the original score by Rodgers and Hammerstein, including “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “I Can’t Say No,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and a show-stopping all-cast performance of “The Farmer and the Cowman.”

In addition to Torres as Curly McLain, the show will star Carissa Salzano as Miss Laurey Williams, Elise Carey as Ado Annie Carnes, Jacob Rea as Will Parker, Vanessa Nolan as Aunt Eller Murphy, Drew Matheson as Ali Hakim, Madison Russell as Agnes Carnes, Avery Mackey as Jud Fry, Lily Erdogan as Gertie Cummins, and a dream ballet performed by Abby Moser.

Showtimes are March 9 at 7 p.m. and March 10 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. All tickets are $10, reserved seating, and advance ticket purchase is recommended. Ticket sales are March 7 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Pennwood Middle School, 1523 Makefield Road, Yardley. Tickets are also available at the door on performance nights 45 minutes prior to curtain. The audience entrance and ticket sale location are through the double doors on Roelofs Road. For information, email pennwoodmusical@yahoo.com. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com