Starring in a new production of one of the greatest classic American musicals of all time, actors Belinda Lang and Gary Wilmot are happily saddled with a success
It’s a brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning show, but when he was first invited to join the cast of Oklahoma! seasoned musical theatre star Gary Wilmot was somehow still undecided. So what made up his mind?
“I discovered that Rachel [Kavanaugh] was directing,” says Gary, whose credits include a swathe of West End musicals, including Me And My Girl, The Pyjama Game, Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “It’s a show that has been done so many times but I knew Rachel would find something special in it. I love working with her,” he says, warmly.
Actress Belinda Lang, perhaps best known for the hit sitcom 2 Point 4 Children, plays Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! She too rates Ms Kavanaugh’s ability to put together a super-talented cast and create an outstanding show.
“I have been astonished by the cast!” she exclaims. “They’re an extraordinarily gifted group who are at the top of their game – to see people that skilled at singing, acting, dancing and comedy is astonishing. They are athletes!”
Presented by Music & Lyrics Limited and Royal & Derngate Northampton, the show has been touring towns and cities up and down the country, and in Ireland until August. And if the reaction thus far is anything to go by, audiences will be charmed to within an inch of their lives.
But it’s a collaborative effort and Belinda and Gary are as impressed with the rest of the creative team as they are with their director and fellow cast members.
“You could say that they are the new kids on the block. Stephen Ridley our Musical Director gives such precise and inspiring instruction and Drew McOnie our choreographer has created one of the most exciting pieces of choreography I have ever seen. I virtually cried at the end of the dream ballet, and that was just in the rehearsal room!” grins Gary.
Belinda is equally enthralled. “Drew is going to be hugely famous, I just know it, and I’ll be able to say ‘Ooh, I worked with him!’ His imagination and storytelling is extraordinary,” she marvels.
With music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! was based on the Lynn Riggs play Green Grow The Lilacs and was the first musical written by the duo. Including the songs Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, I Cain’t Say No, The Surrey With The Fringe On Top, Kansas City, People Will Say We’re in Love and of course the title song, it was originally produced on Broadway in 1943, with the Academy Award-winning film following in 1955.
Set in the Oklahoma territory in the early 1900s, the musical story tells of two sets of star-crossed lovers. Cowboy Curly loves Aunt Eller’s niece Laurey, but Curly’s rival is the mysterious and dangerous hired hand Jud Fry. Meanwhile, Ado Annie is torn between cowboy Will and peddler Ali Hakim – the role that Gary is thoroughly enjoying playing.
“He’s a character that comes in and out, so I knew I’d have my work cut out for me – I’d have to make an impact. Mind you, you’d have to go some to steal the show away from the talent we’ve got in this cast.
“Ali goes from town to town plying his wares, mostly for ladies, selling kitchen equipment, perfumes and frillies from Paris. He’s a charmer; he can charm the birds from the trees, and it’s not until a few days after he’s gone that people realise that they have been conned,” says Gary, who did a little digging and discovered that the role had been played many different ways previously.
“Rachel and I concluded that he was perhaps Persian but had grown up in New York. He uses the Persian element to make everyone think of him as this romantic and exotic figure.” An exotic rogue then? “Exactly!”
As for Belinda, she’s relishing her role as Aunt Eller. “She’s the matriarch of the piece. She’s the aunt of the leading lady and the go-to person in the community who keeps everything in check. She’s a bit of a pioneer and very salt of the earth. She’s a hard-working old boot!”
And not even schlepping up and down the country every week until August can take the shine of this production for Gary and Belinda, who are both clearly delighted to be part of such a success.
“Physically it’s not the most tiring role I have ever done so I am actually enjoying sitting in the dressing room and watching everyone else working,” jokes Gary.
“At the end of each performance you can feel that the audience is desperate to sing along with Oklahoma!” adds Belinda. “It’s a wonderful feeling and you think, well, this is worth doing!”
Words: Vicky Edwards
Oklahoma! comes to The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, from Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 June.