‘Oklahoma’ at Cohoes Music Hall takes a fresh look at a musical classic – Saratogian

COHOES, NY — The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical takes place “where the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.” It’s a place where “the cowboys and the farmers can be friends.”

In other words, it’s a metaphorical time and place to which many people would like to return.

Managing Director Chuck Kraus, who is directing “Oklahoma” for Playhouse Stage Company, emphasizes the key word is “metaphorical.”

In a recent telephone interview, he pointed out, “People forget the play is set in 1906. That was one year before Oklahoma was accepted as a state. There was a lot of change going on and change always causes tension.”

Kraus says he and Ashley-Simone Kirchner, the Director of Education for Playhouse Stage Academy-Conservatory, agree on presenting a more realistic version of the show. He emphasized this will not be a dark revisionist version, rather a more accurate depiction of the era. “This show has great music and dancing. It’s a fun show, but we would be dishonest if we sanitized the story. There are dark moments. I think of it as putting the humanity back in the show.”

He added, “I think the intent of the authors got lost over the years. I see this as a story about the growth and expansion of America. It was a time when good men made some bad decisions and some bad men made some good decisions, maybe for the wrong reasons. Just like today, the times were complicated.”

Telling the story in an authentic way is important to Kraus for many reasons, not the least of which is it will be performed by the students of the pre-professional Playhouse Stage Academy-Conservatory.

They are elite theater students from middle and high schools all over the region who are looking for special training in order to follow a professional career in theater. Kirchner estimates that about 80-90% of the students have plans to follow a career in the performing arts.

Kraus explains, all his students have natural talent and they understand the theatrical process because of the high quality of high school teachers in the region. At Park Stage they get specialized training in skills and techniques, but he feels as a teacher-mentor-director he wants to give a performer more. That more is insight into a character, a sense of collaboration with the director and history – and most of all – ownership of the role.

He says by approaching the material in an honest way it gives the actor the information he or she needs to make choices about their characters. Kirchner, who is also choreographing the show, says, “One of our major goals is to empower the performers. We encourage them to take risks in rehearsal and create an environment where it’s safe to fail before making their final choices about the character. This way they grow as performers and individuals.”

As for the quality of the performances, if you ever want to irritate Kraus or Kirchner, refer to their work as “Kids’ Theater.” Kraus says, “If someone said that to me, I would find it insulting. The skill level of these students is mind-blowing. Each and every one is committed to their craft and to putting the best product on stage.”

Kirchner validated him by pointing to the many students who have gone on to professional theater and have been accepted at colleges with prestigious theater departments. Too, she lauded the student performers who had supporting roles in their last major production, “Bright Star.” “I was so proud of their maturity,” she says. “Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, because we hold them to the same professional standards in all our shows.”

Kraus ended assuring potential audience members, “The cast might be young, but they will offer mature performances. It’s going to be an interesting show.”

“Oklahoma” plays at Cohoes Music Hall in Cohoes tonight through March 13. For tickets and schedule information call (518) 434-0776 or go to playhousestage.org. Proof of vaccination is needed and face masks must be worn inside.

Cohoes Music Hall located in downtown Cohoes. (File photo)

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